“Missy, look who I found while fetching the mail.”
I looked up from my laptop, curious why Dragon was calling me Missy, the name my characters called me in public. I soon saw the reason and smiled. Dragon, in her assumed identity of the delicate lass, Dray, walked over to the gazebo where I sat working. Skipping behind her was a young child.
“Well!” I closed my laptop and walked down the gazebo steps. I bent down, putting myself at eye level with the child, and smiled at her. “Who is this?”
The little girl giggled. “It’s me, Marisol.”
“Marisol?” I feigned shock. “No, it can’t be! Marisol is a little girl.” I held my hand down to indicate someone much shorter than the child in front of me.
Marisol giggled again. “I’ve grown since you saw me. Last week, Mommy measured me, and I’ve grown two whole inches this year!”
“Two whole inches? Imagine that! You’ll soon be as tall as your mother!”
Marisol giggled and rolled her eyes at me.
“Speaking of your mother, is she with you?” I stood and glanced over at the side yard, expecting to see our neighbor, Bastina.
Marisol bowed her head and scuffed her foot back and forth in the grass. Her voice was small when she finally answered. “No.”
Dray frowned. “Does she at least know where you are, child?”
Again, Marisol scuffed her foot back and forth. “No.” Her voice was even softer this time. When she finally raised her head and looked at Dray, the little girl’s brow was furrowed, and she was chewing her lower lip. “I have to talk to you, Dray, and I didn’t want Mommy to hear.”
“Oh?” Dray lifted a delicate eyebrow and tilted her head, studying Marisol closely. “And prithee, what do you need to discuss with me that your mother cannot hear?”
Marisol hesitated. “My birthday is Sunday. I’ll be seven years old. I’d really like to see the horses for my birthday. Maybe even pet them? I mean, it doesn’t have to be on my birthday, just for my birthday. Any day around my birthday would be fine.”
Dray wrinkled her brow, seemingly confused by the child’s request. “You know we do not have horses here.”
Marisol scoffed. “I know you did. I think you still do.”
“Hmmm.” Dray narrowed her eyes. “But you do not believe your mother would want you to be around horses?” Again, Dray tilted her head and carefully studied the child.
Marisol folded her arms in front of her and sighed deeply. “I don’t think Mommy wants me to see the horses.”
When we first met Marisol and her mother last year, we discovered Marisol had the unique power to see past Dragon’s spell of concealment. She was able to see the illusory horses and stable. She was also able to see through Dragon’s shape-shifting ability. She saw not the exotic maiden everyone else saw, but the beast’s true form. While her mother did not understand Marisol’s power, she was uncomfortably aware of it, since another part of the child’s power was to cause those around her to see what she saw.
Marisol dropped her arms to her side and looked beseechingly at Dray. “But horses are my favorite animals, Dray! I mean, except for dragons, of course.” She giggled, then gave Dray another sad look. “I really, really, really want to see the horses. It’s my birthday wish! Please?”
Dray pursed her lips and rubbed the back of her neck.
Perhaps sensing Dray was about to refuse, Marisol tired a different tack, turning to address me as well as Dray. “You know Talia has been working with me, teaching me how to control my . . . problem.”
Dray and I nodded. We knew that Talia, one half of the team who operated the Chris-Tal Clear Metaphysical Store, had taken Marisol under her wing. She was providing guidance and direction to the young conduit of magic.
“Well, I’m doing really well with the exercises she taught me. I promise no one else will see the horses.” Marisol raised her hand as if taking an oath.
Dray sighed. “Suppose I speak with Talia. If she feels you have achieved a sufficient level of control, then I will approach your mother. Mayhap I can convince her to allow you to be our guest one day this week, without revealing the true purpose of your visit.”
“Oh, that would be perfect, Dray! Thank you!” The little girl ran to Dray and threw her arms around the woman, hugging her tightly.
That afternoon, after Dray checked with Talia, I dialed Bastina’s number and handed the phone to Dray to make arrangements.
“How fortuitous!” Bastina was so thrilled with Dray’s offer to have Marisol visit on Saturday, I could hear her enthusiastic reply even though I was standing a good ten feet from Dray. “I have to work the mid-shift at the herb shop Saturday, from eleven to six. I usually take Marisol with me, but after work I need to pick up her birthday cake and make some last-minute arrangements for her party on Sunday. I couldn’t do that if she were with me.”
Dray responded warmly. “It is our pleasure! Is it permissible for us to throw a small celebration for Marisol when she visits Saturday? Perhaps have a cake? Seven is quite the milestone in a young lady’s life, and we would be remiss if we ignored this occasion.”
With Bastina’s blessing, Dray and I began the plans for the party. We called the rest of my characters together, along with my husband, and explained our idea.
“I am going to allow Marisol to see me in my true form, and to see the illusory horses.” Seeing the shocked looks on the faces of her companions, Dragon waved dismissively. “I believe Marisol is sufficiently mature that she will not go off blathering about it to all and sundry. Also, Talia assures me the child has achieved a level of control over her powers that will prevent unexpected guests – anyone who crashes the party, so to speak – from seeing what Marisol sees.”
“I think it would be a good idea for us to have a little party for Marisol, leading up to the grand event of the day.” I looked around at the lack of enthusiasm among my characters and sighed. “We can have cake and ice cream and give her some small, token gifts. We can make it a real birthday celebration.”
My Old Dwarf’’s eyes lit up at the mention of refreshments. “Be ye tinkin’ o some chock-lit cake?”
Cleric shook her head. “Marisol does not like chocolate. I will make an orange chiffon cake. It is her favorite”
Seeing the dejected look on the dwarf’s face, cleric reached out and patted his hand. “I know! Instead of one big cake, I will make individual cakes for each person. Yours will be chocolate, my friend. And we can have several flavors of ice cream. Master Miles has shown me how to use the machine that makes it.”
“What sort of gifts can we give Marisol?” My Young Hero frowned and scratched his head.
We spent some time discussing ideas. Dragon decided granting Marisol her birthday wish would be her gift. Cleric felt the party and the cakes could be her contribution, and my Old Dwarf decided to handcraft a present. I offered to do the shopping for everyone else and made a list of what to get.
I looked up. Cleric was there, as she often was when I felt alone, confused, and angry. The concern in her soulful eyes touched me.
I nodded. “Yes. Something is bothering me.”
Cleric gestured toward the door. “It is a beautiful day out. Shall we retire to the deck to sip some refreshing lemonade and commune with nature?”
I was about to tell her I preferred keeping my own company that day, but then I reconsidered. “Yes, that sounds like a good idea. Why don’t we invite Dragon, Sorceress, and my Old Dwarf as well?”
Cleric furrowed her brow and stared at me. “If you wish. I will locate them, and we will meet you on the deck. We will bring the refreshments.”
Soon after, we were gathered on the deck. Cleric poured the lemonade and we all helped ourselves to cookies. Then we sat in silence, watching my Foreman and the lads work their illusory horses. My companions shifted uncomfortably and did not seem to know what to say.
My Old Dwarf was the first to break the silence, talking around a mouthful of cookies. “So’s, the holy lass be sayin’ thet summat be botherin’ ye.”
I nodded. “Do you remember me telling you about my friend, Ruth?”
The others nodded.
“She been an ol’ friend o yourn from back when ye been livin’ in thet udder place . . . New Jersey . . . an’ ye been runnin’ a stable where ye been keepin’ horsies fer udder people. Ruth been keepin’ ’er horsie wit ye, but then she been movin’ an’ ye dinna been keepin’ in touch much after thet.” My Old Dwarf tapped the side of his head. “I be rememberin’.”
“I remember as well.” Sorceress nodded. “If I recall correctly, a year or two ago, you discovered she was living near here when one of her relatives contacted you and asked you to visit her.” She sipped her lemonade as I nodded.
“Yes, that was two years ago. It was the first time I had seen Ruth in almost thirty-five years.” I sighed.
“That was not a pleasant visit for you, was it, Mistress?” Cleric gave me a sympathetic look.
I shook my head sadly. “No, not pleasant.”
My Old Dwarf nodded. “I be rememberin’ all right! Ye been all upset then by how she been. Ye been sayin’ thet she been robbed o ’erself by time. Ye been ta see ’er a few times since then, an’ each time, ye been just as upset.”
Dragon, in her form of a delicate maiden, tilted her head and stroked her chin. “I remember also. Had you not planned to see her again, right before this pandemic closed her facility to visitors?”
“Yes. I was supposed to go, but her niece called me and cancelled the visit.” I took a sip of my lemonade. “That was five months ago. The niece just called me this week to let me know the nursing home was allowing visitors again.”
Sorceress nodded. “You went to see her Wednesday, did you not? I recall you were not upset by this visit. You said it was a good day for Ruth.”
“The visit was remarkable. Ruth had some of her spunk back. There was a sparkle in her eye, and she sat a little straighter. And she remembered things! She talked and talked and talked about the things we used to do, the horses we owned, the places we rode, the auctions we attended.”
“That sounds like a lovely day, Mistress!” Cleric beamed.
“So’s why be ye so upset taday?” My Old Dwarf was still talking around a mouthful of food.
“Ruth’s niece called me this morning. Ruth passed away last night in her sleep.”
“Oh, Mistress, I am so sorry!” Cleric placed her hand on my shoulder while the others murmured their condolences.
“Thank you. I’m sad she’s gone, but glad she had a few good days at the end. When I saw Ruth this week, it seemed she was doing so much better and her niece told me Ruth had been doing well all week. She seemed stronger, more engaged, remembering things. She even started working on a crossword puzzle.” I sighed. “It seems so unfair that she’s gone now, just as she seemed to be a bit better.”
“Be ye writin’ summat aboot ’er agin, liken ye did afore?” The dwarf took another handful of cookies.
I wrinkled my brow and shook my head. “No, I don’t think so. I think the blog and the poem I wrote about her two years ago will stand as her tribute.”
Almost a week had gone by, and still Dragon sulked in front of her blazing fireplace.
“The temperature outside has been steadily rising all week. Summer has returned with all its heat and humidity, and still that vile beast keeps that inferno blazing in the conference room! The entire house is like an oven! She gives no thought to the comfort of anyone save herself!” My Arrogant One scowled fiercely as he rose from the breakfast table. He drew himself up, rocked back on his heels, and grasped his cloak with both hands. “I, for one, have no intention of subjecting myself to such maltreatment. I am retiring to the shed until someone takes that insufferable beast in hand.”
My Old Dwarf stopped loading his fifth helping of flapjacks onto his plate and jumped up to face my Arrogant One. “Eh, thet insufferable beastie be me mostest specialest friend, so’s ye best be watchin’ yer tongue there, elfie, afore I be puttin’ a knot in it fer ye.”
The elf, predictably, reacted with a glass-shattering shriek. “Do not call me elfie!”
The dwarf chuckled and settled back to finish his breakfast as the elf stomped out of the room.
“The elf might be annoying, but in this case, he is right. Something must be done about that cold-blooded reptile before we all bake to death.” My Bounty Hunter threw his napkin on his plate and followed the elf to the relative comfort of the garden shed.
My Young Hero wiped the sweat from his brow. “The rest of us have discussed escaping into the illusory world created for the Foreman.” He refilled his glass from the pitcher of ice water and gulped it down. “Mistress, you and Master Miles are welcome to join us.”
“Thanks, but I think Miles and I should stay here. I’ll try to reason with Dragon again.” I raked my hand through my hair and turned toward my husband.
Miles frowned. “You better persuade her to get rid of that fireplace before all the paint in the house bubbles off the walls and the paneling warps.”
My Old Dwarf pushed himself away from the table and got slowly to his feet. “Good luck ta ye, lass. Ye be needin’ it! Tha beastie do na even be listenin’ ta meself.” The pain and worry over his friend showed in my Old Dwarf’s red-rimmed eyes, slumped shoulders, and shuffling gait as he left the room.
I sighed and looked at Miles again. Before I could say anything, the doorbell rang.
“You and Master Miles finish your meal, Mistress. I will see who is at the door.” Cleric trudged out of the room, wiping the sweat from her face. Moments later, she raced back, eyes sparkling and a huge smile lighting up her face. “Mistress, there is someone here to see you! Sir Oliver of Skygate Farm begs an audience.”
I jumped out of my chair. “Ollie? Ollie’s here already? I only called his human this morning.”
“You called James?” Miles looked relieved. “Why didn’t you say anything?”
“You were busy making breakfast when I made the call. When I got to the breakfast table, my Old Dwarf was already here, and I didn’t want to mention it in front of him. He and Dragon share a close bond, but nothing like the bond Dragon shares with Ollie. I didn’t want to upset the old reprobate. You know how jealous he can get.”
“Do you really think Ollie can help?” My Gypsy looked skeptical.
“Only one way to find out.” I headed down the stairs and out the front door to welcome our guest.
When I arrived in the front yard, Ollie was sitting there, seemingly mesmerized by two butterflies fluttering around his head. I took a moment to study him. I had almost forgotten how handsome the Old English Sheepdog was, with his elegant head, his intelligent eyes, his muscular body, and his magnificent coat, beautifully patterned in blue merle and white.
When he saw me, Ollie jumped up and woofed in greeting, a goofy puppy-like grin on his face. When he tried to wag his little bobbed tail, his entire hindquarters wiggled comically with the effort. When he saw me trying not to laugh at his antics, he immediately stopped. He almost looked as if he were blushing, as if remembering he was no longer a puppy, and he quickly assumed a more dignified bearing.
I smiled. “Sir Oliver, it’s been too long since you honored us with a visit! It’s good to see you again.”
Ollie whined and nodded. “Too long, indeed, Marge. I have missed coming here. But please, call me Ollie. Sir Oliver is too formal between friends.”
I smiled and nodded. “Of course, Ollie. How have you been? And how are your human companions, James and Ron?”
“We are all well, thank you, Marge.” Ollie’s human speech was well developed, as were his manners. “But, please, from what James told me, I would prefer we do our catching up later. James said Dragon needs my help.” Ollie’s distress was evident in his china blue eyes, and the way he started dancing around. He began mixing his canine vocabulary with his human words. “Woof! Where is she? What is wrong? Is she injured? Is she in danger? Woof! Woof! I need to help Dragon! What can I do?” He ended with a heartbreaking whimper.
“Relax!” I placed a hand on Ollie’s broad head and patted him reassuringly. “She is uninjured, and in no danger, save that of losing her friends. She is currently in the conference room, basking in front of her illusory fireplace.”
Ollie scratched behind one ear with a hind foot. Then he cocked his head and gave me a confused look. “Her fireplace? But it must be more than eighty-five degrees today!”
I nodded. “Dragon claims that anything under a hundred degrees is not comfortable for her.”
“Woof! How can she stand it, with her luxurious fur coat?”
“Fur coat?” I furrowed my brow and tilted my head. “Dragon has scales.”
Ollie looked embarrassed. “Woof, woof! Of course! I forgot Dragon is a dragon. You see, when I look at Dragon, I see a beautiful female Old English Sheepdog!”
I chuckled. “I see. Well, at any rate, you can imagine how the rest of us feel with the house so hot.” I gestured toward the front door. “Maybe you can talk with her?”
“Woof, woof!” Ollie shook his head so hard, his ears flapped. “Oh, no, Marge! My own fur coat is quite thick, and I do not tolerate extreme heat very well. Perhaps you could tell her I am here, and I could wait for her in the back yard?”
I nodded and went inside as Ollie trotted around to the rear of the house.
A blast of hot air assaulted me when I opened the door to the conference room, driving me back and making me gasp for air. I steeled myself, pushed through the wall of heat, and entered the room. “Dragon? Dragon!”
The cranky beast opened an eye, and smoke poured from her snout. “If you are here to complain about the heat, save your breath. I find it most pleasant, and I intend to stay here and enjoy it.”
I shrugged. “Then should I tell your guest you choose not to see him?”
“What guest?” Dragon’s question was delivered with a snarl.
“Ollie has traveled all this way . . .”
Dragon was on her feet in a heartbeat, eyes wide and a silly grim stretching her reptilian lips. “Ollie? My Ollie . . . er, I mean my friend, Ollie, is here? Where? Show him in! Show him in!”
I folded my arms over my chest and raised an eyebrow. “Oh, I’m sorry.” I smirked. “Ollie has declined my invitation to come in to see you. He can’t tolerate extreme heat. He has a rather thick fur coat, you know. He said he’d be in the back yard if you cared to visit.”
The words were hardly out of my mouth when Dragon was through the doorway and racing up the stairs.
Sighing, I wiped away the rivulets of sweat running down my face and trudged down the hall to my office. I walked over and opened the window, hoping for a cool breeze to alleviate the oppressive heat.
I smiled at the scene unfolding before me. Ollie was racing in circles around Dragon, yipping and woofing for joy. Dragon bent over and let Ollie give her puppy-dog kisses, licking her snout and cheeks. Once Ollie had finished kissing her, he sat and looked at her with adoration in his eyes.
“I have missed you, dear one.” Dragon spoke softly and caressed Ollie, tenderly ruffling the fur on his head and gently scratching behind his ears.
Ollie closed his eyes in bliss as he replied, “I have missed you, too.”
I tip-toed away from the window to give them some privacy, but their voices carried through the screen.
“I am so overjoyed at seeing you, I forgot to ask what brings you here today.”
I held my breath, hoping Ollie wouldn’t tell Dragon I had called James to request Ollie’s help. I should have known Ollie would be discreet. He kept my secret.
“Woof. I just thought you might like a visit from a friend.”
When there was no response to Ollie’s statement, I imagined Dragon raising an eyebrow or shaking her scaly head at her canine friend.
“Growf? I felt that you were troubled, and I wanted to assure myself you are safe and well?”
I smiled. I knew I was right, and Ollie’s first response had elicited a skeptical look from Dragon. This time, Dragon must have accepted Ollie’s reply, as she answered him.
“I appreciate your concern, dear one, but as you can see, I am both safe and well.”
This time I imagined Ollie rolling his eyes, as he replied. “Woof! You know you cannot hide your emotions from me. Something troubles you. Cannot a friend offer some help, lend a willing ear?”
I heard Dragon sigh. She took some time before answering Ollie. “You are right. I am troubled.”
“For quite some time now . . . really, ever since falling out of Mistress Writer’s manuscripts and becoming stranded here in the real world with her and Master Miles . . . I have been the one everyone turns to for help. When some of my fellow characters yearned for their horses, I was the one expected to create illusory animals for them. When the Foreman longed for his old life, when he was feeling useless here, I was the one expected to create a solution.”
Dragon paused. She must have begun pacing. When she spoke again, her voice came from a different direction.
“When the Arrogant One creates problems, when the neighbors observe something they should not, when the Young Hero is plagued with nightmares, when some mystery or danger or menace threatens us . . . it is always me, Dragon, who is expected to deal with it.”
There was another pause, and then her voice came from her original location.
“Still, for all I do for everyone else, no one cares about my happiness or well-being. I desire to be warm. I am a creature of fire and heat, raised in the burning sands of the desert. Yet, they would deny me my fireplace, my warmth, my comfort.”
All the while Dragon spoke, Ollie remained silent, not once interrupting to ask for details or suggesting she might be exaggerating. He waited patiently at each pause, not jumping in with advice or urging Dragon to continue. Ollie continued to remain silent for a long time after Dragon stopped speaking. Finally, I heard him reply, his human-speak combined with a series of whines and whimpers.
“I understand. You feel you carry everything on your shoulders, and you feel unappreciated and ill-used by those for whom you do so much.”
Ollie paused, and I assumed Dragon was nodding, as I heard no reply from her.
Ollie continued. “Do you hate them for it?”
“Who? Mistress Writer and Master Miles, and my fellow characters?”
Dragon took a long few moments before answering. “Hate them? No. I would lay down my life for them.”
Ollie woofed. “Yes. That is your lot, your role in life. You are the Wise One and the Protector. The one who created you endowed you with greatness . . . great wisdom, great strength. For that, and all the burdens it places on you, do you resent the others – Mistress Writer, Master Miles, and your fellow characters?”
I heard Dragon reply in a small voice. “No.”
“Woof! Woof! Then embrace your role in life! Be the Wise One. Be the Protector. It would be no different, you know, if you were still in your own world.”
There was another pause.
“And remember. Not everyone who resides under the same roof with you is a creature of fire and heat. Not everyone in this house was raised in the burning sands of the desert. You alone are comfortable in such an inferno. And part of being the Wise One, part of being the Protector, is not causing harm or discomfort to those in your safekeeping. The Wise One should be able to find a way to remain warm and cozy while not baking the others in the process.”
I heard the sound of Dragon’s laughter, a combination of the melodious tinkling of crystal wind chimes, the gentle babble of a brook, and the soft sound of wind through reeds.
“Dear one! Methinks the One who created you endowed you with much greater wisdom than that with which I have been endowed. Thank you, my friend!”
I quietly left the office, hoping Dragon and Ollie wouldn’t discover I had been eavesdropping. Before I had even walked up the stairs to the kitchen, the house had dropped back to a comfortable temperature.
Miles looked up, expectantly, as I walked into the kitchen.
“Defrost the biggest, juiciest steak we have in the freezer. I’m inviting Ollie to stay for dinner, and he’s earned a tasty reward.”
My thanks to Ollie, and to his human companion, my social media friend, author James Stack, for Ollie’s guest appearance in this week’s blog.
Sir Oliver of Skygate Farm – Ollie – is an Old English Sheepdog who is as wise as he is handsome.
Ollie’s human companion, James Stack, is a recipient of the Freedom of Expression of Courage Award from PEN America. His memoir, WORLD’S FAIR, and collection of poetry, PLEASURES & SEASONS OF VERMONT, were published in 2013. His blog, Postcards From Lebanon, about his experience with chemotherapy, appeared on The Huffington Post during 2013/2014.
Be sure to come back next week and see what’s in store next for my little band of displaced characters. I’ll leave the porch light on for you.
I looked up as my husband entered the kitchen, where I was inventorying the contents of the refrigerator before moving on to the pantry. Tomorrow was grocery shopping day, and I wanted to make certain my list was complete.
“What’s the problem?” Noting his annoyed look, I put down the list and gave him my undivided attention. “Did one of my characters get into some mischief again?”
“I’m not sure. Have you noticed how warm it is?” Miles took out a handkerchief and mopped his brow.
I nodded and frowned. “I have noticed, but I thought it was just me. I’ve been scurrying around here this morning like a chicken with my head cut off.”
Miles shook his head. “No, it’s not you. It’s hot in the house. Too hot. It’s almost ninety degrees in here, and it’s only sixty-eight outside. I already checked the thermostat to make sure no one had accidentally turned on the heater. The slide switch was sitting right in the middle, between heat and air conditioning, in the off position.”
“So, why is it so hot in the house?”
We looked at each other for a moment, then both turned and yelled, “Dragon!”
“If ye be lookin’ fer tha beastie, she been in tha con-fer-ence room, lastest I been seein’ ’er. She prob’ly still be there. She dinna be lookin’ much liken she be wantin’ ta be movin’.” My Old Dwarf entered the room, chomping on an apple. He made a beeline for the refrigerator. Holding the remains of his apple between his teeth, he started pulling out two loaves of bread along with everything that could conceivably go on a sandwich, and a whole lot that couldn’t, rendering my shopping list useless.
“You better go see what she’s up to.” Miles spoke to me but scowled at the dwarf. “I’ll stay here and try to make certain your Old Dwarf doesn’t eat us out of house and home.”
I found Dragon in the conference room, as my Old Dwarf had predicted. She was curled up in a tight ball, sound asleep, in front of her blazing illusory fireplace. She had morphed to black. Her color often reflects her mood, I reminded myself.
“Dragon?” I tiptoed over to the beast and cautiously poked at her, but she did not stir. “Dragon!” I shouted practically in her ear. I had to shout several more times before she half-opened an eye. She greeted me with a growl.
“Nice to see you, too.” I frowned.
Dragon’s eyes narrowed dangerously, the tip of her tail started twitching, and acrid smoke drifted from her snout. “I do not wish to be disturbed. I wish to warm myself.”
I scoffed. “You’ve made this room hotter than a dwarven forge with your illusory fireplace! And the whole house is like a sauna!”
Dragon nodded. Her reptilian lips stretched in a smile, revealing terrible, dagger-sharp teeth. “It is my only defense against your Minnesota weather.” She sat up and morphed back to her normal red color. “What happened to summer? Last week, it was deliciously hot. This week is it freezing!”
I snorted. “Hardly freezing! The temperature outside right now is a comfortable sixty-eight degrees Fahrenheit.”
“Comfortable for whom?” Black smoke plumed from her snout again. “In case you have forgotten, I am a creature of fire and heat, raised in the burning sands of the desert. When it reaches one hundred on your devices that record the heat, it is finally warm enough for my comfort.”
I glared at her. “Well, it had better not reach one hundred in this house! If you are cold, shape-shift to the form of a person and put on a coat. Or create an illusory desert to visit. Just keep the temperature in this house comfortable for the rest of the occupants, if you don’t mind!”
The beast’s tail twitched, and her reptilian eyes narrowed. “I do mind.”
“What?” I was taken aback by her response.
“I do mind.” She started to pout. “The comfort and care of every other occupant of this house is catered to before mine. I do not hear you complaining when your Old Dwarf raids the refrigerator a dozen times a day.”
“If you don’t hear me complain about that, it’s because you don’t listen very well.” I stared at Dragon, my brow furrowed and my hands on my hips. “What’s gotten into you, anyway? I’ve never heard you complain about not being treated the same as the others.”
“If you do not hear me complain about that, it is because you do not listen very well.” The beast turned my words back on me.
I gaped at the huge reptile. I had never before heard her complain about her treatment.
Continuing to pout, Dragon seemed intent on declaring every slight she felt she had suffered since falling out of one of my manuscripts and becoming stranded in this, the real world.
“Dragon,” she sing-songed. “The Foreman, the Gypsy, and the Young Hero miss their horses. Create some illusory mounts for them. Dragon, the Foreman misses his old life. Create an illusory world for him so he can feel useful again. Dragon, the Arrogant One is causing problems with his magic. Deal with him. Dragon, some neighbors have seen the illusory stable and horses. Do something. Dragon, the Young Hero is having nightmares. Help him. Dragon, something strange is happening. Investigate. Dragon, your fireplace is making the house too hot for everyone. Get rid of it.”
The beast paused to take a breath, glaring at me with an anger I had never before seen her direct toward me.
“The house is too hot for everyone?” She snarled. “Am I not part of the everyone living here? With all I do for everyone here, is not my comfort as important as that of the others?”
At a loss for words, I stood gaping at Dragon as she morphed back to black and curled up in front of her fireplace once more.
* * *
“Ye been noticin’ summat strange aboot tha beastie?”
With his mouth full of the huge bite he had just taken from his sandwich, the Old Dwarf’s words came out more like “Yebenotsinsummitstrgeabotthabeasty?”
Miles gaped at the rotund figure. “What?”
The dwarf swallowed his food, took a big swig of dwarven brew to wash it down, then repeated himself. This time, Miles managed to follow the gist of the dwarf’s question.
“You mean stranger than just being a dragon, in a world where dragons don’t exist?” Miles raised an eyebrow at the dwarf. “No, I can’t say I’ve noticed anything else strange about her.”
The dwarf chuckled. “After us-ens bein’ here in yer world all this time, ye still do na be acceptin’ us, be ye? Ye be actin’ all tha time likens ye be wakin’ up some day an’ be findin’ all o us-ens ta have been jus’ a bad dream.”
“One can only hope,” Miles replied dryly.
The dwarf shook his head and took another bite of his sandwich. This time, he waited until he had swallowed it and taken another drink before speaking, all the time eyeing Miles curiously. “So’s, ye do na been noticin’ any change in tha beastie’s behavin’?”
Miles shook his head. “No. What sort of changes do you think I should have noticed?
“Wale . . .” He crammed the last bite of sandwich into his mouth and chewed on it, a pensive look on his face. He took his time chewing that bite and took an extra-long swallow of brew when he had finished. He squared his shoulders and faced Miles as he spoke. “Now, I do na be for sure certain aboot it, but it be seemin’ ta me thet tha beastie jus’ do na been ’erself lately. E’er since we been returnin’ from tha make-believe world what she an’ tha other magickers been creatin’ fer tha Foreman, the beastie been seemin’ . . .” The dwarf struggled to find the word. “She been seemin’ all oot o sorts, sulky-like. Likens summat be on ’er mind, be eatin’ at ’er..”
Miles considered this. “Well, you know her better than I do. I thought the two of you shared a pretty close bond. You would, no doubt, notice things about Dragon long before anyone else would.”
The Old Dwarf sighed. “Mebbe. But thet do na be meanin’ I be knowin’ what ta be doin’ fer ’er.”
Walking in on the last of the conversation, I thought sadly, I’m not sure I know what to do for her, either. But I might know someone who would.
What can I do . . . what can any of us do . . . to help Dragon? Be sure to come back again next week and see to whom we might turn to help Dragon. We’ll leave the porch light on for you.
My Foreman decided he was not quite ready to return to the illusory world my spellcasters had created for him, so he, my Gypsy, and my Young Hero spent a few days working their ersatz horses. Dragon, Sorceress, and Cleric began collecting botanicals and other raw spell components and processing them, to replace the components they had used in recent spellcasting. My Arrogant One and my Bounty Hunter retreated to the seclusion of the garden shed, an area they had long ago overhauled and claimed as their place of refuge. My Old Dwarf returned to chasing the rabbits around the yard, cussing at them and brandishing his axe, but never quite catching any of them.
I arrived for dinner one evening midweek to an empty table, save for my husband who was looking confused. “Honey, are we the only two eating tonight? I made enough stew for an army.”
I frowned. “I don’t know of any reason the others wouldn’t be eating with us tonight. Give me a few minutes and I’ll see if I can round them up.”
Before I could move, Dragon, Sorceress, and Cleric appeared at the top of the stairs, looking exhausted. As the three trudged to the dining room, Dragon gave Miles and me a sheepish look. “We are sorry to be late to table. We managed to collect an extensive array of botanicals yesterday, and it has been a monumental task today, preserving and processing everything. We simply lost track of time.”
As the three magic users took their places at the table, another trio of my characters scurried through the door from the deck. Rushing to the table, my Foreman and the lads were all apologies for being late. My Gypsy grimaced. “We really worked the horses hard today, and it took longer than expected to walk them cool and groom them before giving them their grain and water.”
My Old Dwarf was the next one to arrive, plodding to the table, dragging his axe behind him. “I be right tuckered! I do na be knowin’ iffin I even be able ta be eatin’ anythin’ tonight, I be so tired oot from been chasin’ them long-eared varmints!” He almost crashed down into his chair and immediately placed his head down on his arms on the table. Moments later, his head shot up and he sniffed the air. “Be thet yer stew, laddie?”
My husband nodded.
“Wale, mebee I be able ta be forcin’ a few mouf-fuls.”
Miles tried to stifle a chuckle as I reached over and smacked the dwarf’s hand as he reached for the stewpot. “Wait until everyone’s here, please.”
The remainder of my little band of displaced characters, my Arrogant One and my Bounty Hunter, made their appearance at that moment. “Sorry.” My elf’s tone clearly indicated he was not. “Your Bounty Hunter was assisting me in the perfection of a few of my more difficult illusions. We lost track of the time and only realized it must be nearing the hour for the evening meal when this lout’s stomach started to rumble.” He jerked his thumb in the direction of his companion, who shrugged but made no comment as the two took their places at the table.
I nodded. “It sounds like everyone had a busy day. I guess no one is going to be up to doing any reading tonight, but I though some of you might be interested to learn Jean Rabe’s next book in the Piper Blackwell series is out.”
“It is?” Dragon’s eyes widened and all signs of fatigue and exhaustion melted away. “I have been looking forward to reading it. The rest of the botanicals can wait!”
“Indeed!” Cleric jumped from her seat and ran over to me. “What is the title of the book? Do you have a copy of it?” Without waiting for an answer, she turned to Dragon. “May I read it after you have finished with it?”
“Awwww . . . I wanted to read it after Dragon!” My Gypsy pouted.
“I thought you all had your own e-readers.” I raised an eyebrow at them. “Didn’t you procure them when Jean’s last book came out, so you could all read it right away and no one had to wait?”
“That’s right!” My Gypsy whooped. “We can all read the book at once!”
“What is the name of this new book?” My Bounty Hunter appeared mildly interested.
“The Dead of Jerusalem Ridge.”
“That is a peculiar title. What is a Jerusalem Ridge?” My Arrogant One furrowed his brow.
I smiled. “Jerusalem Ridge is the place in Kentucky where the story begins.”
The elf tilted his head and gave me a confused look. “I thought I remembered these books being set in a place called Indiana.”
“They are. The main character, Piper Blackwell, is a sheriff in a rural county in Indiana. She’s just in Kentucky for a three-day holiday. She’s visiting some old army buddies, and they’re engaged in an extreme sport known as paintball. I know you’ll have no knowledge of this sport, but you’ll understand it after a while. Jean does an excellent job of describing everything so even people who aren’t familiar with the sport can follow the action.”
“That is one of the things I like about Mistress Rabe’s books.” My Gypsy wore a wide grin. “There is a lot about this real world of yours that we, your characters, have never encountered in our medieval world. Yet, I have no trouble following the events in Mistress Rabe’s books. She explains everything very well, often when a character has to explain something to Sheriff Blackwell, who is rather inexperienced.”
“Indeed!” Cleric nodded. “I remember in . . .” She paused to think, her brow furrowing in concentration. “I believe it was in her second book, The Dead of Night, she wrote about topics such as computer hacking and banking fraud, things of which I had no knowledge, yet I had no trouble understanding the story. Evidently the sheriff had little experience with these topics, either. So, as she learned, the readers learned.”
“Well, I thought it was fantastic, every bit as good as the first three in the series, and I daresay you will enjoy it, too. There are two mysteries presented. One involves an incident at Jerusalem Ridge during the paintball. Another occurs back in Sheriff Blackwell’s jurisdiction, where her department is investigating a crime.” I motioned for my characters to wait a moment.
I retrieved my laptop and brought up one of the sites with book reviews. “Look at this. The Dead of Jerusalem Ridge already has ten reviews on this site alone, and it’s only been out a couple of weeks. And every one of the reviews here gives the book a five-star rating, the highest rating possible. Here’s one of the reviews.” I read it aloud to the others.
Another Winner for Jean Rabe. The Dead of Jerusalem Ridge is the fourth installment in award-winning author Jean Rabe’s fantastic Piper Blackwell series, and it hits its mark squarely.
The series follows the efforts of the young and inexperienced, but very capable, rural sheriff, Piper Blackwell, and her impressive team as they go about solving gruesome crimes. The action, which rarely slows for the reader to catch a breath, is at times heart-stopping and jaw-dropping.
The series is populated by rich, multi-dimensional, and sometimes quirky characters so well written that the reader will feel as if they could strike up a conversation with them. Readers will never suffer a two-dimensional, cardboard cutout character in one of Rabe’s books, and it is her inclusion of details from both the professional and personal lives of her characters that makes them feel so real. Rabe’s meticulous eye for detail, and her use of language that sings, brings the rural settings to life as well.
As The Dead of Jerusalem Ridge opens, main character Piper is taking a few days off to enjoy the company of some old army buddies and engage in the extreme sport of paintball in the eponymous Jerusalem Ridge, Kentucky. As often happens in Piper’s life, things go wrong . . . horribly wrong. The young sheriff finds herself in the middle of a mystery while dealing with serious injury and tragic personal loss.
Upon her return to the rural Indiana county where she lives and works, Piper finds her department investigating a hate crime which is dividing the usually close-knit community . . . a hate crime that takes a deadly turn. Piper immerses herself in both investigations while trying to recover from her injuries and deal with events in her personal life.
The pacing of the story, with its various twists and turns along the way, will keep the reader on the edge of their seat. The details of the crimes will draw the reader into trying to solve the mysteries of whodunit and why. The Dead of Jerusalem Ridge, like all Jean Rabe’s Piper Blackwell books, is a wonderful weave of cozy mystery, police procedural, and suspense. And the ending delivers a delightful surprise.
I can’t wait for the next book in this series.
“Oh, this sounds so exciting! I cannot wait to read it!” Cleric gushed.
“Nor I!” Sorceress turned to Dragon. “Yes, the rest of the botanicals will have to wait. We need to do some reading.”
I grinned at their eagerness. “Just as a side note, on the day The Dead of Jerusalem Ridge came out, Jean Rabe won an unrelated award. She received the Faust Award, bestowing on her the title of Grandmaster, from the International Association of Media Tie-in Writers, for a lifetime of writing great tie-in books.” https://iamtw.org/2020-faust-award-winner-jean-rabe-grandmaster/
“Tie-in books?” My Gypsy looked confused.
I smiled. “A tie-in book is a work of fiction based on a film, a video game, a television series, or another such product.” Seeing the lad still looked confused, I tried to explain. “For example, Jean has written books set in the Star Wars universe, as well as tie-in books for many other products.”
“You will have to show us all of Mistress Rabe’s books someday, but right now, I want to start reading The Dead of Jerusalem Ridge.”
With that, my Gypsy and his companions gobbled their food in record time, then raced away, each intent on finding a quiet place to read.
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.
Jean Rabe is a former reporter and bureau chief turned novelist. She has more than 35 books published in various genres, and more than four dozen short stories. Perhaps best known for her fantasy and science fiction works, she has made a name for herself with her urban fantasy and her mystery tales as well. Rabe lives in a small Midwest town, enjoys board games and roleplaying games, and always has a dog or three lying across her feet as she writes.
It 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.
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.
I 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.
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?”
“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.”
“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.”
Thirty 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.
“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.
“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.
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.
“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.”
“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.
“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.
“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.”
My 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.”
“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.
“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!”
“Good eye! They’re hard to spot!” Miles nodded at her approvingly as he reached for another slice of cake.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
I 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.”
“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.
“The male House Finch is posing nicely for me.” Cleric took a couple of quick pictures. “And the male Northern Cardinal as well.”
“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.
I had not realized I had been gaping at the stranger for many long minutes until Miles poked me. “Honey?”
The panic in my husband’s voice mirrored my own fear. What was this stranger doing in our home, and how much did he know about my characters? I looked to my characters for an explanation, but the group that just moments before had been creating an uproar, everyone trying to shout over each other in their eagerness to share their tale, now stood silent, shoulders slumped, feet shuffling, eyes darting back and forth.
I turned back to the man who had identified himself as Chester and tried to think of something to say. The man beat me to it.
His voice was terse, and his face harsh. “Like I said, I don’t know how I got here. I don’t even know where here is. And I don’t know any of you . . . do I?” Chester folded his arms across his chest and squinted at us through his thick glasses.
I gulped, and I could feel beads of sweat forming on my forehead. “Ahhh . . . Well, I’m not sure if we’ve ever met. You say your name is Chester? Where do you come from, Chester?”
He turned his attention to me and squinted harder, his eyebrows squishing together as he studied me. “I’m from Minnesota. Creekside. Where am I now? How did I get here? Who are all of you?” He sounded agitated as he barked out the staccato questions.
Dragon, in her assumed identity of the delicate and exotic maiden, Dray, stepped forward, tugging cleric along with her. She touched Chester on the arm and spoke soothingly to him. “Do you not remember, sir? My sister, Clara, and I were walking along and saw you wandering around by the side of the road. You appeared quite befuddled. You could not tell us your name, or if you were sick or injured. Since neither Clara nor I had a . . .” Dragon thought hard and almost stumbled over the term. “Since neither of us had a cell phone, we brought you home with us. We thought to call the authorities so they can make sure you are well, and help you find your way home.”
The man calling himself Chester stared at Dragon, studying her for a long time. Finally, he shook his head and declared emphatically, “No! No, I don’t remember that. Are you sure about it?”
Dragon nodded. “Quite sure, sir.”
Cleric added, “Forsooth! My sister and I were quite concerned when we encountered you. You really did not seem quite yourself.”
Chester scrunched up his face and stared at Cleric. “Huh! How would you know if I was quite myself or not? You don’t know me. And forsooth? Who uses words like forsooth?”
As Chester continued his tirade, I noticed Dragon making strange and intricate gestures behind her back. Then she mumbled something and touched Chester’s arm again. The man froze mid-sentence and stood as stiff and still as a mannequin.
My eyes almost popped out of my head. “What did you do to him?”
“Do not be alarmed.” Dragon gave me a reassuring look. “I have not harmed him. My fellow magic users and I must cast a spell on him to determine if he is a real person or an illusory being, and it would be best were he not awake to witness it. The others will explain.”
While Dragon and her four magical colleagues worked together to determine Chester’s true nature and makeup, my other characters detailed their adventures in the illusory world for Miles and me.
My Foreman told of the illusory world, of the magnificent horses he had seen, and of his encounter with the Boss and the stable hand. “The Boss was smug, cocky, and cruel. The way he treated the stable hand made me feel sorry for the lad. I understood the lad only attacked me because he feared the consequences of disobeying the Boss. When I suggested the Boss might have become the Boss only recently, the lad found the courage to defy the man. That saved me another lump on my head.” My Foreman reached up and gently touched the spot on the back of his head where the stable lad had walloped him with a lead pipe.
When my Foreman had finished his portion of the tale, my Young Hero, my Bounty Hunter, and my Old Dwarf amused us with their portrayal of Sangree – the grinning fool as my Bounty Hunter dubbed him – and their account of their journey through the region called the Changes.
My Young Hero rolled his eyes as he spoke of the pathfinder. “The ever jovial Sangree proclaimed himself the best guide in the town, but it seemed for a while that he could not guide us ten feet in any direction without getting lost.”
My Bounty Hunter nodded. “Of course, that was only due to the phenomenon of the changing landscape. One moment, we might be walking along the road past lush pasturelands, and suddenly we might find ourselves deep in a forest, or knee-deep in a swamp, or on a beach. At one point, we were even walking along some railroad tracks. And things were just as confusing once we found the stable and the Foreman.”
My Young Hero and my Bounty Hunter explained the apparent dual nature of the man they knew as the Boss, the man who now called himself Chester. My Young Hero shrugged. “The spell showed him to be illusory, the same as Sangree and the stable hand, but it also showed him to be real. Dragon thought it best to bring him back here to the real world in order to study the matter further.”
“An’ ye shoulda been seein’ tha beastie, lass! She been changin’ back ta her true self, an’ then been turnin’ blue and been dribblin’ smoke bubbles from ’er snout when thet fool guide, Sangree, be tellin’ ’er he dinna be knowin’ how ta be gittin’ back ta tha town!” My Old Dwarf slapped his knee and doubled over with laughter.
As we laughed over that image, the magic users returned, their task accomplished.
“Chester is completely real. Whatever part of him was illusory must not have been able to enter into the real world.” Dragon frowned. “Now we must find out where Chester belongs, and figure out how to get him there and erase any memory he might have of our encounter.”
I scratched my head. “How do you propose to do that?”
Dragon rubbed her jaw, raised her eyebrows, and sighed. “Well, he said he is from a place called Creekside here in Minnesota. Are you familiar with that town?”
I shook my head. “Never heard of it. What about you, Miles? You’re a Minnesota native. You ever hear of Creekside?”
Miles furrowed his brow. “Nope. Maybe you could check it on the computer.”
I nodded. “Okay, while I do that, why don’t you take everyone, including Chester, upstairs and get them something to eat?”
A half hour later, I pushed my chair back from the desk and frowned, convinced there was no such place as Creekside in Minnesota.
As I entered the dining room, I overheard Chester complimenting Miles on the food. “This is the best stew I’ve had in a coon’s age.” The huge smile on his face faded as he muttered, “Can’t get vittles like this at Creekside!”
A lightbulb went on in my brain. Creekside must be a retirement home or apartment complex, somewhere that served meals. “Where is Creekside, Chester? I can’t seem to find it on a map.” I sat down next to the man and waited for him to refill his bowl with the thick, savory stew.
“Creekside’s where I live. I told ya that.” He scowled.
I smiled sweetly. “Yes, I remember you telling me that, but I can’t find Creekside on a map. Is it near here?”
Chester glared at me while he finished chewing a mouthful of stew. “I told ya before, I don’t even know where here is, so how would I know if Creekside is near here?”
I ducked my head and smiled sheepishly. “Well, here is Waconia. Does that help?”
“Waconia, huh?” He ate another mouthful of stew before answering. “Yeah, I know Waconia. Got people there. My daughter and grandkids. But Waconia’s nowhere near Creekside.”
Dragon interrupted. “Clara and I found you here in Waconia. Had you been visiting your daughter’s family?”
Chester rubbed his chin and furrowed his brow. “I can’t remember. Mighta been. What street was I on when you found me?”
Dragon blushed. “I have not resided in this town long enough to have learned the street names.” She paused, narrowing her eyes as she thought. “It was quite near the market, though.”
“Bet I was going shopping. Those kids never have enough milk and good food in the house. Soda, chips, junk food, yeah, they got plenty of that. I always stock the pantry when I visit.” Chester frowned. “But if I was going shopping, I shoulda had my car. Why did you find me wandering the side of the road? What happened to me? Why can’t I remember?”
Dragon shrugged. “I do not know.”
“Should I call your daughter?” I did not know how to explain to his daughter how Chester had come to be at my house, but I did not know what else to do.
I saw Dragon making the same strange gestures she had made previously, and before Chester could reply, Dragon mumbled something and touched his arm. Once again, the man was as still and stiff as a mannequin.
Dragon rounded on me. “What do you propose to tell his daughter?”
I raked my hand through my hair and sighed. “I don’t know, but what else can we do? We can’t just open the front door and kick him out on the street.”
“Let me handle this, Mistress. If he believes he was going shopping, that is the best place to start. My fellow magic users and I will take him to the market and see if he can find his vehicle.”
I raised an eyebrow. “What if he was wrong? What if he wasn’t going shopping? What if he doesn’t find his car in the supermarket parking lot?”
Dragon chewed on her lower lip. “Then we see if he can find his way to his daughter’s house. If he was somehow caught up in the magic as we cast the spell creating the illusory world, he must have been close by. So, it should not take long for him to find something – either his vehicle or his daughter’s house – that will bring back his memory of where he was and what he was doing before the magic entangled him.”
I started pacing, thinking of the myriad ways this could go horribly wrong. “What about his memories of the illusory world, and of being the Boss?”
Dragon shrugged. “He seems to have no memory of that, but we can make certain that if he does, those memories will have no chance of surfacing at a later time.”
I heaved a huge sigh and nodded. It was, in my opinion, an imperfect solution, but I saw no alternative.
Twenty minutes after they left the house with Chester, Dragon and her companions returned.
“Well?” I was impatient to hear how they had fared.
“Well, as soon as we left the house, Chester knew where he was. His daughter lives just a few streets over, on the same street as Marisol and Bastina.” Dragon smiled. “As we walked him to his daughter’s house, part of Chester’s memory returned. He had been out walking his daughter’s dog – a rather large and unruly beast as he tells it – when the animal spotted a squirrel and gave chase. Chester lost his grip on the leash and was racing after the dog, who pursued the squirrel into our yard.”
My Gypsy chuckled. “That is the last memory he had before finding himself in the conference room with all of us. We speculate Chester was right next to the conference room window when we cast the spell, and he got ensnared by the magic. We had no trouble, though, convincing him he must have tripped and hit his head on a tree or something and that is why Clara and Dray found him wandering around with no memory.”
“Once he was ensnared by the magic, he somehow melded with one of the illusory beings, and that is why he appeared both real and illusory.” My Arrogant One shook his head. “Of course, he has no memory of that, and we ensured that he never will.” The elf chuckled. “As Sangree would say, piece of cake.”
I sighed in relief. “So, does this mean my Foreman will be able to return to the illusory world?”
“We magic users will have to inspect the threads of the magic weave from both outside the illusory world and within. If all appears undisturbed, he will, indeed, be able to return. We all will.” Dragon grinned. “Perhaps you and Master Miles might even be able to join us.”
I smiled. “I’ll give that some thought.” I’m fairly sure Dragon did not see my hand behind my back, with my fingers crossed.
Be sure to come back next week and see what’s in store next for my little band of displaced characters. I’ll leave the porch light on for you.
“Yer doin’ it again, sista.” The speaker raised an eyebrow at Dragon, who was still in her assumed identity of a delicate and exotic maiden.
“I. Am. Not. Your. Sister.” In a flash, Dragon transformed into her true self and towered over the now-quaking man who called himself the Boss. Black smoke poured from the beast’s snout.
“Yikes! No, you sure ain’t! What the heck kinda monster are ya?” His eyes were bulging as he tried to backpedal away from the brut, only to be hemmed in by her companions.
“Monster?” Dragon stood before the terrified man, once again in her guise of a maiden, batting her eyelashes and feigning innocence.
The Boss rubbed his eyes and gaped at the beautiful woman.
“And just what were you are accusing me of doing again?” Dragon asked sweetly.
“Huh? Uh . . . oh, yeah. You were talkin’ about me like I ain’t right here.” The Boss tried to appear annoyed, but it was difficult to do when his eyes were still bulging, and his forehead was beaded with sweat. After a few moments, though, he seemed to regain some of his bluster. “An’ waddaya mean I’m real and ill . . . illus . . . waddeverthaheck else ya said I was?”
“Both real and illusory. It means you show signs of simultaneously being both a real person and an illusory being.” Seeing the man’s confused look, Dragon continued. “You may be a created being, an illusion.”
“Waddaya talkin’ about? I ain’t no illusion!” The Boss curled his lip and all but snarled the words. “I’m as real as the next guy.” He gestured in the direction of the guide, Sangree, and the stable hand.
The Arrogant One chortled as he drew himself up, rocked back on his heels, grasped his cloak with both hands, and looked down his nose at the Boss. “That statement has little meaning if either of those two” – he indicated the two figures at whom the Boss had gestured – “are the next guy to whom you refer, considering both of them are illusory.”
The Boss looked at the Arrogant One as if the elf were speaking a foreign language. “Waddaya sayin’?”
Sympathy tinged the Gypsy’s voice as he tried to explain the situation to the Boss. “He is saying Sangree and the stable hand are illusions, created to fulfill a specific function in this world, a contrived world, an illusory world; and we believe you may also be an illusion.”
“More accurately, you appear to have both properties marking you as a real being, and properties revealing you as mere illusion.” Sorceress was still gaping at the man as she spoke. “We do not know how this could be. As I said before, one is either real or illusory. One cannot be both. Or so we thought.”
“Wha . . . wha . . . wha . . .?” The Boss looked like a fish gasping for air. Before the confused man could form any intelligent words, the Old Dwarf pushed him aside.
“Wot be wrong wit all o ye? Why be we wastin’ tha time ta be jawin’ aboot this man? It do na be makin’ no nevermind ta us iffins he be real or iffins he be illusionable. We been findin’ tha Foreman, likens we been come here ta do. Now we be needin’ ta be skedaddlin’ back ta tha town, so’s we kin be gettin’ back ta tha real world . . . afore we be gettin’ losted in this make-beliveable world fer e’re.”
“He is right. The most important thing right now is to find our way back.” The Gypsy nodded.
“Indeed. We did not come all this way to find the Foreman just to end up staying here with him. We must return to the real world and take him with us.” The Young Hero placed his hand on Tor’s shoulder and gave him a reassuring look.
Dragon pursed her lips and nodded. “What you say makes a great deal of sense. This mystery, though important, is not our paramount concern. Returning to the real world is. We should leave immediately.”
She turned to the Boss, who was still looking gobsmacked. “You will come with us. If we can get you back to the real world, perhaps we can unravel the mystery of your identity and your nature.”
“Well, sista . . . er, I mean lady . . .” The Boss gulped nervously and gave Dragon a wary look before continuing. “What if I don’t wanna go witchya?”
“You will come with us.” Dragon’s tone of voice did not invite further discussion.
The Old Dwarf stood by Dragon’s side, glaring at the Boss and brandishing his sword. “Ye been hearded the Beastie. Ye be comin’ wit us. Now, be ye movin’ along on yer ownest two feetsies, or be I slicin’ ye up inta little bitty pieces wat we kin be carryin’ in our pouches?”
The Boss blanched. “My feet’ll do just fine. No need ta get dicey.”
Tor turned to say goodbye to the stable hand. “I do not even know your name, friend.”
The lad shrugged and made a moue. “Don’t know it myself. Had one, once . . . I think.”
Tor extended his hand. “Well, take good care of yourself and these horses, friend. Maybe someday I will be able to return, and you will have remembered your name.”
The other man nodded and accepted Tor’s hand, shaking it warmly. “I’ll be right here if ya ever git back.” Then he turned and started distributing the feed and water to the stalled animals.
Tor nodded to Dragon, indicating he was ready to go.
“Sangree, you will lead us back to the town.” Dragon motioned for the man to proceed.
The self-proclaimed best guide in the town looked like a startled deer. “But . . . but . . . nobody ever asked to go back to the town. The road leads away from the town.”
“Well, it should be easy enough to follow the road back in the opposite direction, toward the town.” Cleric picked up her pouch and tied it back on her cincture, adjusted her robes, and started walking out of the barn. She stopped when she noticed no one following her. “Well, it will be easy, will it not?”
Sangree shrugged. “I don’t know. I’ve never tried.”
“Oh, this is ridiculous!” The Bounty Hunter scowled at the man. “You have guided many people away from the town, correct?”
“Well, how do you get back to the town to lead the next group away from it?”
“I . . . I don’t know. I don’t think I’ve ever gone back to the town. I’m just there when someone needs a guide.” Sangree furrowed his brow and scratched his head. “I have no idea how to get to the town.”
Dragon sighed. “That makes sense. Sangree is an illusory being, designed to be a guide for people entering this world. People enter at the town. He guides them to places within the town, or to places away from the town. Once he guides someone to their destination outside of the town limits, they would presumably be able to find their own way back to the town, so he is not designed to lead people in that direction.”
Cleric’s eyes widened and she started fidgeting with her cincture. “How will we find our way, then? How will we negotiate that treacherous region Sangree called the Changes? Sangree had enough trouble finding his way through there!”
“The first thing we will do is not panic.” Dragon would have sounded more convincing had she not transformed into her true nature, then immediately morphed blue and started dripping smoke bubbles from her snout.
Sorceress rolled her eyes. “Good advice. You should listen to it.”
The Old Dwarf pushed through the companions, dragging the Boss with him and making sounds of disgust. “There do na be no reason ta be panickin’.” Pointing to Sangree, he demanded, “Wat be tha place nearest tha town thet ye been guidin’ folk to?”
“Why would that matter?” The Bounty Hunter furrowed his brow and scratched his head.
The dwarf sighed and rolled his eyes. “Iffins tha guide be takin’ us ta tha place closest ta tha town, mebe we kin be findin’ tha rest o tha way our ownest selves.”
Sangree furrowed his brow and put his hand to his chin. The tip of his tongue poked out of the corner of his mouth and his eyelids almost closed. He remained in that position for several long minutes. Just as the dwarf was reaching for him to shake him out of his stupor, Sangree’s eyes flew open and he smiled broadly. “This stable! This stable is the closest place to the town that I’ve ever led anyone to.”
“Oh, that’s really helpful!” The Boss snorted.
The Gypsy frowned at the Boss and turned to address Sangree. “Okay, so this is the place closest to the town, but what about places within the town where you have led people?”
Again, Sangree furrowed his brow and put his hand to his chin. Again, the tip of his tongue poked out of the corner of his mouth and his eyelids almost closed. But this time his eyes flew open almost immediately and his smile was so wide, it looked as if his face would split. “The marketplace! Almost everyone wants to stop at the marketplace for supplies before leaving the town.”
“Well, then, can you lead us to the marketplace?” Dragon had changed back into the form of a maiden and was looking hopefully at Sangree.
“Piece of cake!” He beamed with pride.
After five days of wandering around the ever-transforming landscape of the region known as the Changes, Sangree led the companions into the town. “See? What did I tell you? Piece of cake!”
All nine characters and the Boss glared at Sangree and muttered an expansive array of expletives, epithets, and profanities at the man, who just stood there grinning.
Finally, the weary group of travelers took their leave of the best guide in the town and emerged in the real world.
* * *
Miles and I jumped up from the breakfast table. “What in the world is that racket?” Miles looked at me in alarm. After so many weeks of just the two of us rattling around the house, the slightest noise seemed to echo through the place. And this was no slight noise.
“It sounds like a herd of elephants stampeding around downstairs.” I grabbed my husband’s hand and tugged him toward the stairs, a smile spreading across my face. “My characters must be back!”
We ran downstairs to the conference room and threw open the door. As I had hoped, there were my characters, all appearing safe and sound.
As soon as they saw Miles and me, my companions fell silent for just a split second; then pandemonium broke out again, with everyone talking at the same time. I held up my hand like a traffic cop to quiet them. “Welcome back.”
The clamor picked up immediately, and the characters pressed in around Miles and me, each trying to tell us what had happened. Suddenly, I held my hand up a second time and called for silence.
I walked over to a man standing among my characters. “Arthur? What are you doing here?”
The man shook his head. “My name is Chester.” He looked around, a dazed expression on his face. “And I don’t know what I’m doing here. I don’t even know where here is.”
Where did Chester come from? Is he the Boss? Is he real or illusory . . . or some impossible combination of the two? How will my characters figure things out? Will they be able to help Chester and return him to wherever he belongs? Be sure to come back next week and see what happens. I’ll leave the porch light on for you.
Dragon – still in her guise of an exotic and delicate maiden – gaped at the figure standing before her.
“Arthur?” Cleric’s voice sounded incredulous as she pushed past her companions. “Why, it is Arthur!” Her eyes widened and she took a step back.
The Gypsy jostled to get a glimpse of the man in question and scowled. “What is he doing here?”
The Young Hero frowned. “Arthur? Are you sure that is Arthur?”
The Foreman, Tor, gaped at the man he knew as the Boss. “I should have recognized him! When I first saw him here in the barn with the farrier, I thought he looked out of place, but I did not realize he was someone I had met in the real world.”
“I can hear ya, ya know. Ya don’t hafta talk about me like I ain’t right here!” The Boss sneered.
Dragon approached the man and studied him carefully. “You are Arthur, are you not?”
The man gave her a smug look. “Maybe. Maybe not. What’s it ta you, sista?”
Dragon gave him a cold stare. Smoke started to drift from her nose, despite the fact that she was not in her true form. “Most assuredly, I am not you sister.”
“Whatever.” The man gave her a curious look. “So, who are ya, and what’s yer business here?”
Dragon ignored him and turned to the Foreman. “What do you know of this man?”
Tor took off his hat and raked his hand through his hair. “I know him as the Boss, but nothing more. I did not recognize him as Arthur, though I sensed he might not be from this world. For several hours now, I have repeatedly asked him who he is and how he came to be in this place. I have gotten nothing but evasion and double-talk.”
The other man tsk-tsked and smirked at Tor. “Whatchya talkin’ about? I already told you. I’m the Boss. I came here from the town, same as you probably did, and I got here by walking, same as you probably did.”
“Yes, yes, you have told me that. But you refuse to reveal the identity you held before you came here and became the Boss. You refuse to reveal where you came from before you were in the town, or how you got to the town.” Tor’s voice was strained, and a vein in his temple throbbed.
Dragon studied the man closely through narrowed eyes. He seemed singularly unconcerned as he flopped back down on the bale of hay.
After many long minutes, Dragon turned back toward her companions and addressed Sorceress, the Arrogant One, the Bounty Hunter and the Old Dwarf, none of whom had ever met Arthur. Their confused looks faded as Dragon explained, “This man appears to be Arthur, the man who runs the writers’ group, Lost in the Words, and who has – on numerous occasions – caused serious problems for us.”
“Yes, he does appear to be Arthur,” Cleric interrupted, still sounding incredulous. “But can we be certain? How could Arthur be in this illusory world?”
Dragon frowned. “I do not know how he could be here. And, no, I am not certain he is Arthur. The physical resemblance is exceptional. However, his manner of speaking is all wrong. And, if he were Arthur, he should recognize some of us.”
“Be there no way ta be sure, beastie?” The Old Dwarf moved closer to the seated figure. “Mebe I can be gittin’ ’em ta be more forthcomin’ wit ’is answers?”
Dragon started to reply when another voice drew everyone’s attention to the far end of the barn. “If you folks’er here lookin’ ta buy some horses, yer just gonna hafta wait. I’m jus’ giving ’em their grain and water now. Come back later in tha day an’ they’ll be ready ta show ya.”
Tor gestured toward the newcomer. “That is the stable hand.”
The other companions stared at the figure while Dragon walked down the length of the barn aisle and studied the lad closely. “You are from this place, are you not? Like Sangree, the guide, you have a specific function here.”
The youth nodded. “I’m from here. I tend tha horses.”
“Do you know that man? The one sitting on the bale of hay?”
The stable hand scowled. “Calls himself the Boss. Ain’t my boss. I won’t work fer that man no more.”
Dragon nodded. “How long has he been the Boss?”
The stable hand frowned and scratched his head. “Not sure, really. Can’t remember but seems like maybe there usta be another boss. Don’t matter, though. Ain’t gonna work for that one no more.”
Dragon turned back to the group at the other end of the barn. “Sangree? Are you still here?”
“I am right here, milady! Do you need me to guide you to another place?” The self-proclaimed best guide in the town scurried down the aisle toward Dragon and the stable hand, a broad grin on his face.
“Not yet. I do need you to stand here, next to the stable hand, please.”
Sangree took his place without question, grinning like a fool.
“Now you.” Dragon pointed to the man who called himself the Boss. “Come here and stand with them.”
“Whatchya got in mind, sista?” He made no move to join them.
“Tha beastie been tellin’ ye afore, she do na be yer sister.” The Old Dwarf had retrieved his axe from his satchel and stood before the Boss, smacking the flat of the blade against the palm of his open hand. “Now, be ye walkin’ o’er there on yer ownest two feetsies, or be I slicin’ ye inta little bitty pieces wat I kin be carryin’ there?”
The Boss narrowed his eyes and took the Old Dwarf’s measure. He rose slowly and stretched. “All right, all right, I’m goin’. No need ta git yer tin can all steamed up.” He started strolling lazily down the barn aisle but picked up his pace considerably when the dwarf whacked his derrière with the flat of the axe blade.
Once the Boss stood with Sangree and the stable hand, Dragon motioned to Cleric, Sorceress, the Gypsy, and the Arrogant One. She drew her four magic colleagues close and spoke in a whisper. “Share your power with me, please.”
The elf drew himself up, rocked back on his heels, grasped his cloak with both hands, and sneered. “My power? For what purpose?”
Dragon silenced him with a raised eyebrow. “Not just your power, elf. I need all of you to strengthen a spell I will cast on those three. We know two of them are illusory – residents of this illusory world you helped me create for the Foreman. We need to determine if the third one – the one who calls himself the Boss, but who looks like Arthur – is also illusory, or if he is real.”
The Arrogant One frowned but nodded. The others agreed with no hesitation. They all joined hands and concentrated as hard as they could. Brows became furrowed, shoulders grew tense, and tongues peaked out of the corners of several mouths. Finally, Dragon intoned a spell in an ancient and arcane language.
After several minutes, Sangree and the stable hand were outlined in a soft blue light. Several more moments passed before the third figure also started glowing softly.
Suddenly, the light around the Boss intensified. He fell to the ground, writhing in a carnelian glow.
“What has happened?” Cleric broke the circle, pulling away from her companions and rushing toward the thrashing figure.
“Do not touch him!” Dragon reached out and grabbed Cleric.
“But he may need healing.” Cleric was already reaching for her pouch of herbs and her clerical emblem.
“I doubt he has been harmed, and even if he has been, I doubt you would be able to help.” Dragon kept a tight grip on Cleric’s arm, moving her away from the Boss, who lay, groaning, in a fading aura of reds and blues.
Slowly, the man’s spasms slowed, and he lay there still, with only an occasional twitch.
“He dead?” The stable hand sounded hopeful.
“No.” Dragon shook her head.
The man rolled over and glared at the stable hand. “It takes more’n a few fireworks ta finish me. I’m the Boss!”
“Sez you,” the youth muttered.
The Boss dragged himself into a sitting position. “What’dya do ta me, sista?”
“Ye be callin’ the beastie sister just oncet more, and ye be seein’ wat it be gittin’ ye.” The Old Dwarf glowered at the Boss, and vigorously pounded the flat of his axe blade into the palm of his open hand again.
The Boss scowled at the dwarf, but kept his mouth shut as he finished dragging himself to his feet. He stood there, leaning unsteadily against a stall door, shaking his head.
Once they were certain the man had sustained no serious or permanent injury, the companions huddled together and looked at Dragon.
“So, do we know any more now than we did before?” The Gypsy asked the question that was obviously on everyone’s mind.
“Yes and no.” Dragon pursed her lips. “The soft blue aura that surrounded the three figures marked them as illusory beings. The reddish radiance showed the one to be real.”
“How can that be?” Sorceress gaped at Dragon. “One is either real or illusory. One cannot be both.”
Dragon shrugged. “He is.”
How can the Boss (or is it Arthur?) be both an illusion and real? How are the companions going to solve that mystery? And will they ever find their way out of this illusory world and back to the real world where Mistress Writer and Master Miles await their return? Be sure to come back next week and see what happens. I’ll leave the porch light on for you.
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.