The thirteenth unicorn, p.28
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       The Thirteenth Unicorn, p.28

           W. D. Newman
 
CHAPTER 25

  DING DONG

  Gabriel and Hob screeched to a halt when Ben’s cry rent the thick fabric of silence that hung over the aging forest. Before Ben’s scream had completely escaped his throat, Gabriel spun around and let the first arrow fly toward the witch. Hob watched helplessly as the drama unfolded, in slow motion, before him. The witch wrapped an arm around Ben’s chest and drew him close. Her free arm flew up, palm extended, and Gabriel’s arrow transformed into a shower of dust that drifted harmlessly into the leaves. Then, the unicorn screamed. This broke Hob’s paralysis and he hefted his axe over his head and charged toward the witch with a battle cry that would have frozen the marrow in her bones, had there been any warmth there to begin with. All thoughts of saving the unicorn were gone. Hob owed Ben his life and he was not going to let him down.

  As Hob rushed to Ben’s aid, Gabriel turned back to the unicorn and loosed a second arrow. The shadow cat had materialized in mid leap. The creature was terrifying to behold. A magnificent black mane framed the shadow cat’s massive head and flowed down its powerful back. The claws were extended and it’s teeth were bared. Gabriel’s arrow caught the big cat just behind the front legs, piercing the heart and bringing it down. The big cat’s mortal body reverted back to its shadow form, a lifeless shade that dissipated like smoke on the wind, as the unicorn fled away in terror.

  Ben’s immediate problem, however, was not the witch. His lungs were closing up fast. He had retrieved the inhaler from his pocket and brought it up to his lips. The witch snatched his wrist away and pulled the inhaler close to her face to examine it. Ben pumped it twice. The witch screamed and released Ben with one arm while she wiped at her eyes, but she maintained her grip on his wrist and, now, Ben could not pull free nor use his inhaler. Feeling the darkness closing in around him, he pulled his knife with his free hand and stabbed at the witch’s hand that was clamped onto his other wrist. With a howl of rage, surprise, and pain, she loosened her hold on him and Ben was able to jerk free. As he was falling backwards, he was dimly aware of Hob screaming. It sounded as if the dwarf was at the end of a very long tunnel. He brought the inhaler up to his lips and fired two quick bursts before he hit the ground. As the cool sweet evening air rushed in to fill his aching lungs, Ben’s panic subsided enough for him to actually take stock of his situation. Now he could see the witch. She was dressed in long black robes trimmed with white fur. The robes were adorned with all manner of bones and covered with many pockets, some large, some small. Some of the pockets even had pockets. The witch reached into one of the smaller pockets and produced, of all things, a dainty lace kerchief to wipe her eyes and her face. The absurdity of the scene made Ben feel as if he must either howl with laughter or go insane. At least, for now, the fear was gone and he was able to take a closer look at the witch, the creature that struck fear in the hearts of everyone in Camelot. In all of the stories Ben had ever read, witches were ugly creatures with big noses and warts, and they wore pointy hats and rode on broomsticks. At least, all of the evil witches were ugly. This witch, however, was stunningly beautiful. With eyes the color of a rain washed sky and hair the color of corn silk, she might have just stepped off a Viking ship, a queen from some snowy kingdom in the far north. Her visage, however, was one of bitterness, hatred, malice, and evil. If any beauty had remained, it fled from her face when she looked upon Ben. The unicorn was so close and this child, this stupid little boy, had foiled her plans. It could be years, even centuries before another unicorn came to Camelot. With a shriek of rage, she raised her arms over her head and brought them down, pointing all of her fingers at the child. Nothing happened.

  As the witch brought her arms down, Ben threw his arms up to shield his face and tightly shut his eyes. He expected nothing less than lightning bolts to shoot out the witch’s fingers. He imagined he was just seconds away from becoming a smoldering pile of ashes and, with the end upon him, Ben’s thoughts turned to his mother. At least she would be spared the grief of his death. At least she would never learn of his horrible demise. Grandma would feel responsible though. Casey too. Ben felt sorry for them. And his poor dad. Ben imagined him getting another call. Except this time the bad news would be about his son. For that matter, Casey and Grandma might not survive either. What was taking so long? Ben lowered his arms and cracked open his eyes.

  The witch was staring down at her hands with a puzzled expression on her face. Something had gone wrong. Snarling, she looked up at Ben as she reached into another pocket and slowly pulled out a wicked looking dagger with a serrated blade that curved like a sickle to sharp and deadly point. With a scream that made the hair on the back of Ben’s neck leap to attention, she lunged at him with the knife. Ben was on his feet in a second, but before he could take two steps she was upon him. She grabbed him once again, this time by the hair on top of his head, and yanked his head backwards. Ben could hear Hob screaming, “NOOOOO.” He closed his eyes and waited, but the blow never came. The witch still had him by the hair, but she was not moving and the forest was eerily silent. Ben cracked open an eye. Several yards away Hob was standing with the axe still poised over his head and a bewildered look upon his face. The dwarf was silent now and staring at the witch behind him. Ben opened the other eye too. Gabriel was approaching now with his bow drawn. Hob lowered his axe and came forward to stand in front of Ben.

  “You never cease to amaze me, Ben Alderman from Atlanta Georgia. You defeated her! That inhaler of yours is a powerful weapon indeed.”

  Hob helped Ben pull free from the witch’s grasp and Ben turned around to see what had happened. The hand that had grasped Ben’s hair was still closed tightly into a fist and Ben’s knife was protruding from the back of it. The other hand, the one with the dagger, was raised high above the witch’s head. The expression on the witch’s face, however, was not one of rage and hatred, but one of shock and surprise. Maybe even a little bit of terror. Ben reached up and rapped on her face with his knuckles. Solid stone.

  “My inhaler couldn’t have done this.”

  “You’re right,” said Gabriel. “It was your spell catcher.”

  “My necklace?”

  “Ahh,” said Hob. “Gabriel is right! She did not see that one coming.”

  “Could someone please explain to me what is going on?”

  Gabriel reached down and pulled the necklace out from beneath Ben’s shirt.

  “This gem on your necklace, the gem you call an emerald, is called by another name in Camelot. It is a spell catcher. A magical gem, normally used by a spell caster to maintain a spell. This you have already heard. What you did not know, is that when you wear a spell catcher, one that is not carrying any spells, it will catch any spells that are cast upon you. When this happens, the spell is transferred to the next person that comes in contact with you.”

  “If you are wearing the spell catcher when they touch you,” Hob added.

  “Yes,” Gabriel agreed. “You must have the spell catcher in your possession for the spell to transfer.”

  Hob laughed. “The witch tried to turn you into stone, Ben. Your spell catcher caught the spell she threw at you and then, when she grabbed you, her own spell came back on her. Serves her right.”

  “Is she dead then?” Ben asked.

  “No,” Gabriel answered. “Not yet. I have seen this spell before. It is an abomination, a cruelty beyond measure that should not be inflicted upon any living creature.”

  “She’s alive!” Ben said incredulously, backing up a step and reaching for his inhaler again. “Can she see us or hear us?”

  “She no longer has use of any of her senses,” Hob answered. “She cannot see as we see. She cannot hear as we hear. She cannot smell, or taste, or even feel. She is truly stone, through and through.”

  “And yet, she is aware,” said Gabriel. “Aware of everything around her. Aware of the prison her body has become. Time will pass ever so slowly for her n
ow and she will have nothing to do but count the days as they turn into weeks, and then into months, and then into years. Madness will eventually take over, but even then, she will live on.”

  “I say that she has received her just rewards and the spell cannot be broken since she is the one who cast it. Let me take her home to Dwarvenhall. We will put her in dark places, deep beneath the roots of the Iron Bone, and then pull the mountains down upon her. It will be a fitting punishment for all of the lives she has destroyed.”

  Gabriel seemed to be considering Hobs suggestion, so Ben quickly spoke up.

  “We can’t do that guys, that’s horrible! If we leave her like this, then we are no better than her.”

  The truth of Ben’s words pierced their hearts like an arrow and an uncomfortable silence hung between them. Finally, Gabriel spoke.

  “You are wise beyond your years, Ben, and you speak the truth. We cannot leave her like this. If we can shatter the stone the witch will cease to exist and perhaps find peace, or justice, in some other world.”

  Gabriel reached for Ben’s knife and grasped the handle to pull it from the statue. The knife was stuck fast. Gabriel wiped his palm on his tunic and took hold of the knife again. He placed his other hand on the witch’s marbled arm and pulled with all of his strength. The knife would not budge.

  “Step aside and let me have a tug on that blade,” Hob crowed.

  Gabriel stepped back and Hob spat into has hands and briskly rubbed them together. Ben was not so sure he wanted the knife back now. The stout dwarf grabbed the knife with both hands and lifted up. He strained against the knife until the veins popped out along his temples and his face turned a purplish shade of red. Finally, he released the knife and threw his hands up into the air.

  “Unless we can shatter this stone, I am afraid you have lost your blade, Ben Alderman. That knife is not coming out.”

  Hob then motioned for Ben and Gabriel to back up. The dwarf hefted his axe and began to swing it over his head in great long arcs. On the third swing, he slammed the axe into the witch’s side. The impact was tremendous and the axe handle splintered and snapped in half. The witch however was unmarred, without even a scratch or a chip upon her torso as evidence that Hob had ever struck her.

  “What now?” Gabriel asked.

  Ben stepped forward and placed his hand on the hilt of his blade. With a gentle tug, the blade slid free of the stone and the statue cracked with a loud pop. Ben, Gabriel, and Hob watched in amazement while shards of stone began to fall away and the witch disintegrated into hundreds of little pieces. In a few seconds, all that remained of the witch was a pile of gray dust and rubble.

  “I must have loosened the blade for you,” Hob remarked.

  Gabriel smiled down at the dwarf and clapped him on the shoulder.

  “Is it over now?” Ben asked. “Is she dead?”

  “Yes,” Gabriel answered, “I believe she is quite dead.”

  “Then let the joyous news be spread, the wicked old witch at last is dead,” said Ben.

  “What was that?” Hob asked.

  “A song from an old TV show,” Ben answered.

  “What’s a TV show?”

  Ben smiled at his friend the dwarf. “Later, I’ll teach you the song and I’ll try to explain to you what a TV show is, but right now I want to know what happened to the unicorn? Were you able to save it from the shadow cat?”

  “The shadow cat has returned to the Dark Lands,” Gabriel answered, “and the unicorn has fled to safety. We must return to the Twilight now and see how the war fares with the snakers.” Gabriel looked down at Hob. “The horde will be upon us in two days time and it is at least two days march from Dwarvenhall to the Twilight. I know that the river sped them along for at least half of their journey, but do you think Amos and your two companions have made it?”

  “Have faith, Gabriel. I am sure an army is amassing as we speak. The only thing a dwarf likes better than swinging a pick axe at a vein of gold, is swinging a broad axe at a horde of snakers.”

  “But I thought the witch was controlling the snakers,” Ben pointed out. “Now that she is dead, won’t they go back to where ever they came from?”

  “That’s possible,” said Gabriel. “But we cannot be sure. If it were just a small band, then I would tend to believe that they would indeed flee. However, these creatures find courage in numbers and I’m afraid the witch, though she may have been responsible for getting them to war against us, had very little control over them at all. So, let us rest tonight. Tomorrow we will trek back to the river and we will have one more night to rest in the boat after it takes us home. After that, who knows what fates await us?”

  The three companions then raked leaves from the forest floor into three soft piles and spread their blankets over them. Night came swiftly and the darkness under the giant oaks was complete. Hob was soon snoring loudly and although Ben did not think he could ever fall asleep with all of the noise coming from the comatose dwarf, he too was soon sawing logs of his own. As for Gabriel, elves rarely sleep at all, yet that night, even he slept deeply and peacefully. That night, no one woke from their slumber and each one of them dreamed of sunny hillsides, green with soft summer grass and tiny yellow flowers that peeped up at an impossibly blue sky.

  The next morning dawned bright and clear. Hundreds of birds greeted the rising sun with song, each one trying to out-sing the other. Circling the patch of ground where the party slept were tracks. A visitor in the night had watched over them while they slept. The tracks were hoof prints.

  *****

 
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