The thirteenth unicorn, p.20
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       The Thirteenth Unicorn, p.20

           W. D. Newman
 
CHAPTER 17

  THE KEEPER

  Everyone waited in the boat for something to happen. After sitting in the hot sun for several minutes, Ben finally stood and pitched his gear onto the pier. The dwarves watched in astonishment as he proceeded to climb out of the boat.

  “What in heaven’s name are you doing?” Hob whispered loudly. “Get back in this boat!”

  “We can’t sit in the boat all day, guys. We still have a mission to complete, remember?”

  Hob, Gob, and Nob looked around nervously.

  “What are your plans?” Nob whispered.

  “Well, there is no one here,” said Ben. “So, I am going to take my stuff and start hiking down the river. You guys can stay here and wait for the elves to return if you wish, or you can come with me.”

  The three dwarves grabbed their gear and scrambled madly onto the pier with Ben. They stood for a moment, contemplating the empty city, and then hoisted their sacks across their shoulders. A sudden voice, on the pier behind them, made them all jump.

  “The penalty for trespassing here is death.”

  Ben and the dwarves spun around. On the end of the dock, stood a tall fierce looking man, with chiseled features and piercing blue eyes. His long black hair was braided into one thick cord that hung down across his shoulders and looped around his neck. Ben noticed the man’s ears were pointed.

  “However, I am quite curious to find out how you managed to enter our forest.”

  “How did he get behind us?” Gob whispered.

  “He’s an elf!” Nob replied. “It’s devilry.”

  “Hold your tongues,” said Hob through clenched teeth, “and bridle your temper. I am rather fond of my head and would dearly love to keep it on my shoulders.”

  Suddenly, Ben pushed past the dwarves and strode right up to the elf.

  “Hello. My name is Ben. Ben Alderman. And these three dwarves,” said Ben, pointing behind him, “are my friends. They are called Hob, Gob, and Nob.”

  The three dwarves bowed low, their long beards brushing the tops of their dusty boots.

  “It’s an accident that we came here at all,” Ben continued. “My friend Gob fell from our boat and, as we were rescuing him, the river took us into the Twilight. We tried to leave at once, but we were unable to. It is important that we leave and continue our journey. I have family and friends whose lives may very well depend on our mission.”

  “What exactly is your mission, young Ben Alderman?” asked the elf, with an amused look on his face.

  “There are snakers near by,” Ben replied, “and we are trying to go to Dwarvenhall to bring back an army of dwarves, to drive them away.”

  “Snakers?” a voice from the other end of the pier replied.

  Once again, Ben and the three dwarves spun around. On the other end of the pier were two more elves. Both were tall and fair-skinned with eyes the color of an autumn sky and both had their long black hair braided and looped across their shoulders, like the first elf. On the shore, by every tent, on every street, and up and down the shoreline were more elves - men, women and children. All were standing silently, watching and waiting. Ben felt a hand lightly grasp his shoulder.

  “Come with me. You and your friends have much to tell us.”

  The two elves, at the end of the dock, stepped aside to allow the first elf to pass with Ben and the three dwarves in tow. All of the other elves were about their business now and the city was at once alive and noisy. The elf escorted them down twisting streets of grass leading into the heart of the strange city, where a small, plain, unadorned tent of brown canvas stood alone on a barren field. The elf led them to this tent and pulled the flap back, motioning for them to enter. Ben entered first, followed by the dwarves and then the elf. Inside the tent, Ben and the dwarves stood rooted to the ground, staring skyward. Ben swayed on his feet and the elf caught him by the arm and steadied him. From the outside, the tent appeared no bigger than the six-man tent he had once camped in when he was a cub scout. On the inside, however, he could not see the far walls of the tent nor the ceiling. The tent wall behind him, where he had just entered, stretched to the horizon on both sides and disappeared into the darkness above. It was more like being inside of a giant underground cavern, rather than a tent. The elf led them over a hill, to a place where a ring of logs circled a stone pit with a dimly burning fire.

  “Please be seated,” the elf politely requested, nodding at the logs. “The Keeper will be here shortly.”

  Ben and the dwarves sat down upon the logs, on one side of the pit, and the elf sat down across from them.

  “My name is Gabriel. Do you have need for a refreshment?”

  Ben looked at the dwarves and all three of them shook their heads. Hob narrowed his eyes and furrowed his brow, making it very clear to Ben that he should decline.

  “No thanks,” Ben replied. “But it is kind of you to ask. What is this place, and who is the Keeper?”

  Gabriel spread his arms. “This tent. This is the heart of the Twilight. The forest outside of these walls is part of it. The larger the forest on the outside, the smaller this tent on the inside. The smaller the forest on the outside, the larger this tent on the inside. The Twilight enlarges or diminishes as our needs demand.”

  “You must be talking about the inside of the forest because the forest looked very tiny from the outside,” Ben remarked. “But, apparently, that is part of the magic. It is bigger on the inside, too. Like this tent.”

  “That is the way of it, Ben Alderman,” said Gabriel smiling. “And as for the Keeper, here he comes now.”

  As Gabriel stood, Ben and the dwarves stood with him. A black robed figure was coming over the hill, from the opposite direction of the tent entrance, his hood was pulled down low and the dim firelight did nothing to reveal his face.

  “Who are the intruders?” the Keeper asked.

  Gabriel stepped forward. “Ben Alderman and his three companions.”

  Then, Gob leapt forward, red-faced with his chin thrust defiantly in the air. “It is Hob, Gob, and Nob of the great dwarven kingdom Dwarvenhall,” he shouted, “and their companion!” Hob quickly grabbed his companion by the hood of his cloak and yanked him back, while Nob set about beating him on top of his head.

  Gabriel’s lips twitched, beginning the formation of something that might have been a smile. Nevertheless, he swiftly recovered his composure and addressed the Keeper. “It appears they have entered the Twilight quite by accident. However, they do bear news of our old enemy.”

  The Keeper pulled the hood of his robe back, revealing his face. Ben was shocked to discover that the Keeper was a very, very old elf. In all of the stories he had ever read elves could be killed, but they never got sick and certainly never grew old. This elf was not stooped in any way, but his face was lined and care-worn and his long braid was white as snow.

  “How did these travelers enter our homeland at all?” he asked Gabriel. “The forest will not permit it and the river should have turned them away.”

  “They were traveling in one of our boats.”

  The Keeper bowed his head for a moment, deep in thought, then turned to Ben and the dwarves. “I am Marcus. Tell me how you and your friends came here, by one of our very own boats no less.”

  Marcus and Gabriel sat down upon the logs, while Ben and the Dwarves remained standing. Hob, Gob, and Nob moved close together, ready to flee if possible - to fight, if not. Ben swallowed the lump in his throat, then proceeded with his story. Once he finished, there was a long silence while everyone sat still as statues. Finally, Marcus stood and approached the fire to warm his hands.

  “We must investigate this further. If what you say is true, we will take care of the snakers. There will be no need for an army of dwarves.”

  “Marcus,” Gabriel interjected, “if their story is true, then I think we should allow the dwarves to continue on with their mission. Their armies can take out the advance scouts and
hunting parties, while our armies go in search of the hive. We also need to consider the witch and her mission. She is truly the greater enemy.”

  The Keeper raised an eyebrow at Gabriel and then turned to study Ben and the three dwarves.

  “Very well. But what are we to do with the trespassers?” he asked. “The penalty stands, unless perhaps the trespassers can make restitution.”

  The dwarves bristled at this comment, fearing that the elves were plotting for their treasure. Ben however remained calm. He thought for a moment and then slowly pulled out the chain with the emerald, from beneath his shirt. Upon seeing the jewel, Gabriel quickly stood and moved to Marcus’s side.

  “That is a spell-catcher,” Gabriel whispered. “Is he the one?”

  Marcus nodded. “Where did you get this necklace, Ben Alderman?”

  “My Grandmother gave it to me. She wears one and she gave me and my sister one too and made us promise to wear them. It is called an emerald where I come from.”

  “Your grandmother and your sister are in Camelot looking for you and they are wearing spell-catchers?”

  “Yes,” Ben replied.

  Marcus and Gabriel huddled together and spoke rapidly, in hushed voices. Gabriel then hurried from the tent and the Keeper turned to speak to Ben.

  “Keep your spell-catcher Ben Alderman. The snakers would not know a spell-catcher, nor how to use one, but the witch must never get her hands on one. You and your friends are in no danger here. Gabriel is assembling a scouting party to find your grandmother and sister. He will bring them back to the Twilight safely.”

  “What about my friends? Joey, Jenny, and Amos?” Ben asked.

  “They will be brought back as well. When everyone is here, we will make our plans together. Until then, you will be our guests.”

  Another elf put his hand on Ben’s shoulder. “I am Jonah. Come with me and I will provide you with food and drink, and a place to rest in private.”

  “How long will it take Gabriel to find them?” Ben asked.

  “We have not been outside the Twilight for many years, but our memories are long and the lay of the land does not change much over time. With what you have told us, they should be able to find them quickly.”

  Jonah led them to another tent, this one bright red with blue stripes. “This dwelling shall be yours while you are within our city. Go inside and make yourselves comfortable. I will be back with your food and drink before I leave. Also, do not stray from this tent unaccompanied. Your safety depends on it”

  Inside the tent Ben, Hob, Gob, and Nob collapsed onto a thick pile of furs in the center of the floor. Within minutes the dwarves were snoring noisily, but when Jonah came back with trays of meats, cheeses, and fruits, the aroma quickly roused them. The food was spread on top of a small table to one side of the tent and all four of the hungry guests dug into their meals. Jonah sat down upon the furs, while they ate, and Ben began to ply him with questions.

  “Jonah, how old is the Keeper? I mean, is he real old? He looks old, but at the same time he looks... I don’t know. Powerful maybe?”

  “You are very perceptive,” Jonah remarked. “We are all old by your reckoning, but the Keeper is indeed old. He is the oldest and most powerful elf in Camelot. But that is not why his hair is white, nor is that the cause for the lines in his face. He is the weaver of the magic that is here within the Twilight. It is a very, very great magic and, over time, it has taxed his life energy.”

  “Will it kill him?” Ben asked.

  “Eventually,” Jonah answered. “But not for many hundreds of years.”

  Ben pushed his glasses up on his nose. “What about the Merlin Tree? Is it here in the Twilight? And what is Faerie like?”

  “You ask many questions! Yes, the Merlin Tree is here within the Twilight. It grows in the center tent. As for Faerie, there are no words to describe it, but perhaps you will have the opportunity to visit it one day.”

  The three dwarves momentarily paused from eating, to see where this conversation was going. Being in the Twilight was bad enough. Going to Faerie was out of the question.

  “So, we will be allowed to leave?” Hob asked, wiping his mouth on the sleeve of his cloak.

  “It appears so. You have young Ben Alderman to thank for that.”

  The three dwarves looked at Ben with respect and admiration. Gob patted him lovingly on the arm, while Nob leaned over the table and refilled his drink.

  “Any more questions?” Jonah asked.

  Ben pulled the emerald from beneath his tee shirt and rolled it between his fingers. The fading light of the day, slanting in through the tent door, caused the gem to sparkle.

  “Can you tell me more about a spell-catcher?”

  Jonah studied the gem as it skipped across Ben’s knuckles, while he framed an answer within his mind. “All things great and small have some magical properties. Usually, the rarer the object the greater the power within it. Jewels are a particularly potent catalyst for magic and the spell-catcher, or emerald as you call it, is the rarest of all gems here in Camelot. That gem you possess has the power to maintain a magical spell indefinitely. For that reason, some people call them spell-carriers.”

  “So a magical spell does not last forever?” Ben asked.

  Jonah shook his head. “Someone has to maintain the spell or it will fade over time.”

  “Well what about our boat?” Nob inquired. “It will not tip over and it still travels up the river without use of oars. It is hundreds of years old.”

  “Yes, it is a powerful spell bound within the old trading boats of Long Lake, but it is a magic that weakens with the passing of every season. And that is going to have to be the last question for today.” Jonah rose from the furs and began collecting the trays. “It will be dark soon, so I must take your leave now. If all goes well, you should be reunited with your family and friends by morning. Sleep now and rest well. Tomorrow will be a day of decisions.”

  *****

 
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