The thirteenth unicorn, p.22
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       The Thirteenth Unicorn, p.22

           W. D. Newman


  Ben and the dwarves followed Gabriel back to the bridge by the pier. Earlier, when they had arrived in the swan boat, the pier was deserted. The whole city had appeared deserted. Now, however, the pier was bustling with activity. Several boats were docked at the pier and more were coming in. Hob noticed that their boat was now docked there as well.

  “Are you planning to keep that boat we came in?” Hob asked. “We have grown rather fond of it and I would be most happy to purchase it from you.”

  “I thought dwarves could not swim and feared the water,” said Gabriel, raising his eyebrows.

  “Yes, it’s true; we dwarves are not good swimmers. We tend to sink. However, it is not water we fear, but the crossing of water,” Hob replied, eyeing the boat and stroking his beard. “Having a boat that will not tip over is the only reason we travel on the river at all.”

  Halfway across the bridge, Gabriel stopped and leaned over the railing to look at the boat Ben and the three dwarves had arrived in. “Once there were hundreds of boats, such as this, that traveled up and down the river to Long Lake. It is very old, even by our standards. Actually, I am surprised that the magic bound within it still lives. How did you come by this boat?”

  “We found it in a cave,” said Gob. “In one of the many caverns we have explored around Long Lake, since leaving Dwarvenhall.”

  “A cave?” Gabriel asked with a puzzled expression. “That is very strange indeed. But these are strange times, I am sure.”

  “What do you mean by that?” asked Hob. “Is there a story behind the boat?”

  “I am not sure,” Gabriel answered. “But I do know that boat is the last of its kind. With your leave, I should like to see this cave one day.”

  “By all means,” said Gob. “We’d be delighted to show you.”

  “As for the boat,” said Gabriel, nodding toward the pier. “You may have it. Consider it a gift and may it bring you many years of good service.”

  “Why, that it most kind of you!” Hob exclaimed. “Most kind indeed. It seems that what they say about elves is not true after all.”

  “And what is it they say about elves?” Gabriel asked, straightening up to his full height and planting his hands upon his hips.

  Hob reddened and began to stutter and stammer. Gob finally jumped in to rescue him. “Never mind him Gabriel. One thing that is true about dwarves though, is that we have very large feet and are quite often cramming them into our mouths.”

  “Yes,” said Hob, sheepishly, “begging your pardon sir, that was very rude of me.”

  Gabriel laughed. It was a long merry laugh and soon everyone joined him.

  “Ah, too long I have been in the Twilight. My heart aches to travel the country again, seeking new friends and new adventures. Perhaps you will join me when all of this is over?”

  “That would be most fun,” Nob answered. “There are rumors of a dragon in the Black Hills. The rumors say this dragon has been guarding his treasure for so long, that he has turned to stone. If we can but locate his lair, we might find his treasure as well.”

  “Those rumors are partly true,” Gabriel answered, “and that dragon’s name is Zoltan. He is a black dragon, from Crag.”

  The three dwarves shivered. The Merlin Tree that linked Camelot to Crag had been destroyed ages ago and no dwarf living today had ever seen the home world from where their race sprang. But the stories of the terrible dragons of Crag lived on.

  “Tell us what you know of this dragon,” said Hob.

  “Zoltan came through the Merlin tree as a young infant and stole away to the northern lands, where he grew into a giant and terrible beast. Eventually, he returned to New Zorn and destroyed the city. This occurred after Mordred’s treachery and, fortunately for Camelot, before Merlin had left. When Merlin saw the destruction Zoltan had brought upon New Zorn, he sought out the dragon and found him near his lair in the Black Hills.”

  “So he turned him to stone?” asked Gob.

  “Unintentionally, yes.”

  “How so?”

  “Merlin cast a sleep spell upon Zoltan. He was going to slay the dragon after it was under the spell, but what Merlin did not know, is that dragons turn to stone when they sleep and blend in with their surroundings. It’s part of their natural defense mechanism, to protect them from other dragons.”

  “So he couldn’t kill it and he couldn’t wake it up or it would kill him!” Nob marvelled.

  “Yes,” Gabriel answered. “You are correct. With his fellow wizards exiled, and the beautiful city of New Zorn destroyed, Merlin left Camelot, never to be heard from again. Most believe he went to Earth. Some believe the dragon destroyed him. We will probably never know what really happened to him.”

  The party crossed the bridge over the river in silence. Gabriel was thinking of the vast and far away Black Hills and how wonderful it would be to behold a magnificent black dragon, the oldest magical creature known to still exist in any world. Hob, with a strange gleam in his eyes, was dreaming of dragon’s gold. After crossing the bridge, they followed a path along the bank that led them to a bright green tent near the edge of the river, where another elf was waiting for them.

  “Jonah!” Ben cried.

  Jonah bowed to the dwarves, then clasped Ben’s hand. “Greetings.”

  “More guests have arrived,” said Gabriel, “and they are now recovering from their journey. Entertain these while the others rest, but make certain they are at the center tent for noon day meal. You come as well. There is much to discuss and much to decide.”

  Jonah nodded and leaned in toward Gabriel and whispered, “Have you heard tidings from our scouts?”

  “Yes,” Gabriel replied in a hushed voice. “It is not good.”

  Jonah nodded again and clapped Gabriel on the shoulder. “Then I will see you at noon day.” He then turned to the others with a smile, “Come, and follow me. We are going to the kitchen tents for some sweets!”

  The morning passed swiftly for everyone and soon it was time for lunch, or as Gabriel called it - noon day meal. Jonah led them to the center tent that also happened to be the small brown tent where the Keeper dwelt. They entered the tent and followed Jonah over the hill to the fire pit, where a fire was burning brightly. Gabriel and Marcus were there along with Amos, Louise, Casey, Joey, and Jenny. Once everyone was present and seated, Marcus stood to address the crowd.

  “As you all know, our enemy from the south has returned and they have come against us with numbers so large they no longer fear us. We have sent out scouts to assess the situation and the news is grave on all fronts. Our forest is under attack, at this very moment, by a band of several hundred snakers and several thousand are marching this way.”

  “Will our forest hold?” asked Jonah.

  “The forest will hold,” Marcus answered, “against several hundred. But against several thousand? I do not know.”

  “When will they get here?” asked Amos, “And how many do you have to defend this place?”

  “They will be here in three days,” Marcus continued. “Four days if you count today. There are less than a thousand elves in the Twilight right now. Messengers have been sent through the Merlin Tree to Faerie for reinforcements, but we do not expect them to make it back here in time. It is two days march from the Merlin Tree in Faerie to our capital city and it will take at least one day to marshal forces. Now it seems that we must indeed accept the offer of aid from Dwarvenhall if any of us are to survive this attack.”

  “Then we must leave at once,” said Hob, rising out of his seat. “It is two days march to Dwarvenhall from here. One day, if we can take the river half-way. If we leave now we can be back with an army to greet them when they arrive.”

  “I am afraid you must wait until dark,” said Gabriel. “Remember, we are under attack right now, from all sides. Yet if you leave by boat under the cover of darkness, the cool waters of the river will m
ask your heat from the snakers and you should be able to slip by undetected. How large of an army can you raise on such short notice?”

  “No less than two thousand,” Hob replied. “Will it be enough?”

  “It will have to be,” Gabriel answered, taking a seat and prodding the embers on the edge of the fire with a stick.

  Marcus watched Gabriel poking in the ashes for a moment, then cleared his throat. “The next order of business is the witch. A unicorn has appeared in Camelot for the first time in many years. It is currently in the Great Oak Forest and we are certain the witch is on her way there now to slay it.”

  “Why is she killing unicorns?” Casey asked.

  “Forgive me; it had not occurred to me that someone here had not heard of Mordred’s treachery. This world we call Camelot was discovered by a wizard named Merlin. He and his fellow wizards left their home world to settle Camelot. They also discovered Faerie, Crag, and Earth, and invited citizens from all worlds to live here. Unfortunately, these wizards were unable to create the peaceful utopia they desired. At first, robbers, thieves, and murderers sprang up from amongst the populations. Then it became gangs and mobs and from there it was just a short leap to armies and wars. The twelve wizards from Zorn despaired and made plans to return to their home world to hold council and decide the fate of Camelot. Except for one.”

  “Mordred,” Louise whispered.

  “Yes, Louise. Mordred. It is a name that strikes fear in the hearts of all who are wise. Mordred believed the wizards should be ruling Camelot, governing all races through fear and dominance, and he expressed these thoughts often, yet no one agreed with him. Over time, his heart grew black and in secret he built a tower within a fortress that he named Stone Dog. There he began to devise how he might rule Camelot himself and, when the wizards decided to return to Zorn, he saw his chance.

  The Merlin Tree on Zorn stands on a desolate mountain far from any habitable place. Once back on Zorn, they would have to use pathways to get to their city. These pathways are magical portals they used to travel about their world. Merlin had mastered this art of travel and was the only wizard that could open a portal without his staff, and keep it open so that other people could use it too. Mordred went through the Merlin Tree, without his staff, so that he would have an excuse to come back to Camelot. The others thought nothing of it and opened their portals to their old city and departed. Once Mordred was back on Camelot, he conjured a spell to destroy the Merlin Tree and he was able to destroy it in such a manner, that the other wizards would never be able to reestablish a connection with Camelot. That left him as the only wizard in Camelot, free to answer to no one, but himself. Or so he thought. You see, Mordred’s fatal mistake was not counting the wizards. If he had, he would have counted only ten others, besides himself. Merlin, the only wizard we truly trusted, had been visiting with us in the Twilight and as we came to understand over time, he was habitually late for any appointments. This time, it saved him from the fate of the council and, when he discovered Mordred’s betrayal and treachery, his wrath was fierce to behold. To shorten this story, Merlin was unable to locate his home world, thus he was unable to establish another connection. He did, however, create another pathway, a new Merlin Tree that connected Camelot to a place called Pluton. There was where he banished Mordred then destroyed the Pluton Tree, in the same manner that Mordred had destroyed the Tree to Zorn. When satisfied the pathway was destroyed, he cast a spell that would prevent Mordred from returning to Camelot, should he ever find it and create a pathway back. And here we shall stop and eat our noon day meal.”

  Several elves entered the tent carrying tables laden with trays of food and pitchers of sweet drinks. After a quick bite, Marcus continued his story.

  “Years later, Merlin left Camelot and, when it became apparent to us that he was not returning, we began to experiment with the magic he had taught us, trying to create our own pathways to discover other worlds, as he had done. The very first pathway we created, back on Faerie, connected our world to Pluton where Mordred had been banished. Had we known this would have happened we would have never attempted this feat of magic, for Mordred had somehow survived his exile and had grown stronger than ever. He sensed our pathway immediately and wrested it from us. Not fully understanding the magic behind creating one of these pathways saved Faerie from immediate destruction because the pathway, though connected, was not traversable. Even so, Mordred was able to detect the magical signature of the pathway that connected Faerie to Camelot, and was somehow able to triangulate Camelot’s location. He immediately opened a pathway to Stone Dog, but thanks to Merlin’s foresight, was unable to enter the pathway because Merlin’s spell blocked him. On Pluton, where Mordred was banished, there are unnamable evils, and sicknesses, diseases, and pestilences of every fashion. Mordred was unable to enter these pathways, but a vile sickness from Pluton began to seep through to both Faerie and Camelot. This sickness, we elves call, the Blight. To all living plants, it is deadly. Strangely enough, it is deadly to us and to the dwarves as well.”

  “We have not heard of this Blight,” Hob interrupted. “How do you know it is deadly to us?”

  “How long has it been since you have been to your home in Dwarvenhall?” Marcus replied. “The Eastern Gates to your city have been sealed to keep the Blight at bay. We are lucky that you will be embarking to the Western Gates tonight.” Marcus paused for a moment while the three dwarves huddled together and conversed rapidly in hushed voices. Finally, Hob looked up.

  “Please continue your tale.”

  This time, Marcus smiled and nodded to the three dwarves.

  “Now that you have a brief history of Camelot and the wizard Mordred, I must bring the witch into the story and explain how she and Mordred are linked together. When Mordred created the pathway to Stone Dog and the Blight began to spread, the witch found the Merlin Tree and traveled to Pluton. Mordred captured her of course and, once he realized her nature and powers, he struck a deal with her; that if she would break Merlin’s spell so that he could return to Camelot, he would help her overthrow this world and she would rule with him. She agreed and he released her with instructions to return to Camelot and to begin preparations by killing thirteen unicorns. Four were slain before we realized she was behind the killings. Since then, we have tried to intervene, but she has always managed to elude us. Seven more were slain before we realized her purpose in the killings. The twelfth was butchered one hundred and seventy two years ago and now the thirteenth unicorn is here in Camelot and the witch is on her way to kill it, even as we speak. She needs thirteen horns to break the spell. If she gets the horn of this last unicorn, all is lost. No one will be able to stand against their combined might.”

  “This is grim news indeed,” Amos muttered. “If she is able to elude the elves of the Twilight then what hope is there? No one else has the strength to face her.”

  “There is one,” said Marcus. “Ben Alderman.”

  “WHAT?” cried Louise, “Ben is a child!”

  Marcus nodded, “Yes, Louise. By your reckoning, Ben is still a child. But there is steel in Ben Alderman, raw and unforged, but steel none the less.”

  “That doesn’t matter,” Louise responded, pulling Ben to her and wrapping her arms protectively around him. “He is just a child and he is NOT getting involved in any of this.”

  “Louise,” Marcus continued, “as the Keeper I see the ends of all paths, but not always the paths that lead to those ends. And there are occasions when I am able to see the paths but not the endings that those paths lead to. Ben Alderman has been present in every path and in every ending I have foreseen in the destruction of the witch. But I could not compel him to go. I would not compel him to go. He must go of his own free will.”

  “It’s not his choice,” Louise cried, clutching him tighter. “He is my grandson!”

  “And my brother,” Casey added, stepping in between Ben and Marcus.
br />   Marcus did not respond. All eyes remained on Ben.

  “I won’t have to go alone, will I?” Ben asked, in a trembling voice.

  “I will accompany you, ” said Gabriel, who was now standing by his side, “and I pledge my life, for yours.”

  “I, too, will go with Ben,” Hob cried, “and I’ll cleave the witch’s head in half if she comes near him. Gob and Nob can return to Dwarvenhall to fetch the army.”

  “And if I don’t go?” Ben asked.

  “Then Camelot shall fall. And Faerie soon after. Your world supports no magic, so you have nothing to fear from Mordred or the witch. You shall be safe when you return home.”

  “Then I have to go,” Ben said, pulling away from Louise. “I have to.”

  Louise began to sob and Casey tried to grab Ben, but Amos pulled them both aside and spoke to them for several long minutes. When he was finished, Casey ran from the tent crying and Jenny and Joey chased after her. Louise and Amos rejoined the group and Louise nodded to the Keeper. Her eyes were red and teary and Ben could not look at her. He was afraid that if he did, he would lose all of the courage he had somehow managed to muster up. He was afraid that if he backed out now that he would never go. He was afraid that… well, he was just afraid.



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