“The Gatekeeper”

Copyright 2018-2020 Jack Sutter

Chapter 9:  “Breakfast After a Long Night”

Lindsey did not sleep well.  Sequestered in Dackery’s guest room with the door and window bolted and barricaded with as much furniture as she could readily move, she lay the night in a swirl of semi-consciousness, filled with cries, shrieks, and dark shadows as her thoughts drifted numbly among questions and fears in between moments of wakefulness, all the while begging vainly to herself for anything like true sleep.

 

She awoke suddenly, the half thoughts and half dreams vanishing in an instant as her mind burst into consciousness.  Something had happened.

 

Lindsey looked about herself.  Yes, something had happened alright.  She’d gone to sleep in a bedroom of a strange house somewhere on the East Coast.  

 

And now here she was awake, in a completely different place.

 

She wasn’t lying amidst the sweaty tangle of sheets she’d gone to sleep in, but on a bed of dry moss.  The dingy room was gone, and all about her the morning sun pierced through the tops of great trees towering above a forest of giant ferns.  

 

What had happened?  How had she come to this place?  Apparently, she had been transported from her room sometime during the night.  Was this Dackery’s doing? Or had the Bird returned and dragged her through one of his holes while she slept?  Or was this the work of something else entirely……

 

Lindsey pulled herself to her feet and began to walk about.  Wherever she was, it was by far the most alien place she’d experienced yet.  She pinched herself a couple of times to rule out whether she were dreaming, but it really wasn’t necessary.  Once you’re fully conscious, there’s never any mistaking reality over a dream, and this was most certainly real.

 

The landscape was a strange mixture of the exotic and ordinary.  Everything seemed quite normal at once, yet at the same time wholly unfamiliar.  Great plants like ferns or perhaps palms grew about her on all sides, and Lindsey found herself staring at them, trying to place where she’d seen such things before even as she could swear to herself that she’d never seen their like.

 

Then, the truth hit her.  They weren’t ferns at all.  They were grasses.  

 

Yes, now that she realized it she could recognize all the plants about her as perfectly ordinary, just of enormous size.  Here there was a dandelion stalk nearly fifteen feet high with a flower the size of a boulder, over there were clovers the size of dinner plates.  Either she was walking in a land of giants, or Lindsey had shrunk to only a couple inches tall.

 

The whole place was aglow with a lustrous green as the morning sunlight washed the dim recesses of the verdant floor.  Beyond the towering heights of the magnified grasses Lindsey could yet make out the brilliant green of leafy trees which in a bizarre twist of perspective still appeared strangely normal in proportion, just oddly distant, very close yet still far away.  She appeared to be in the midst of a lightly wooded area, for the ground was not so dense with grass as it might be, with patches of bare dirt here and there mingled with bright clover and fuzzy moss, and small columns of dun colored mushroom caps. Even so, visibility was poor in this miniature jungle, and Lindsey could hardly see more than perhaps twenty feet or so (or perhaps twenty inches, being so small made things rather confusing in that regard) after which the world became obscured with a menagerie of tiny plants.

 

The ground crunched beneath her feet, and Lindsey looked down and realized that she was standing in the middle of a patch of brightly colored pebbles, poured out on the ground around her like gravel.  It filled a roughly circular area immediately where she stood, and then formed into a narrow but thickly laid trail which meandered away from her and gradually disappeared into the grass. It was unquestionably a path.

 

It seemed to Lindsey that nothing natural could have created such a thing, and being that the path began most conveniently near the precise spot at which she had awoken, it seemed also to her that whoever had brought her here meant for her to follow it.  Whoever it was, if they’d had any intent of doing her harm they’d already had more than enough opportunity to do so, and Lindsey decided that at this point there was nothing to be lost by playing along and following the path to wherever it went. And so she did.

 

The path meandered to and fro through the grass and among the clovers and mushrooms.  Up ahead, Lindsey could faintly make out some brilliant splashes of bright red objects, so large as impossible to be obscured wholly by even the densest of the grass.  What were they, giant flowers? Or were they mushrooms? Yes, they were definitely mushrooms, enormous red and white speckled toadstools in fact. There seemed to be a lot of them not far away, and the path was leading Lindsey in their general direction.  In a short while the groundcover opened up a bit, and Lindsey found herself at last among the toadstools. There was a veritable grove of them, great and wide like stately oaks, with pure white gills and stalks drooping with ruffs, and brilliant red mantles speckled with white nodules.  It was a magnificent spectacle, and Lindsey paused to gaze at it for a moment before continuing again down the path.

 

“Where are you going?”

 

Lindsey halted.  A voice?

 

The voice had come from the grove of mushrooms.  It was real, definitely not something in her mind.  Turning back, Lindsey’s eyes searched among the scarlet fruits, to light almost immediately upon a small red mushroom only a few feet away.  

 

There, sitting beneath shade of the spreading hood of the mushroom, was a small being.

 

Its body was short and just a little bit rotund, and it’s limbs were long and willowy.  It sat cross-legged with its hands resting in its lap, its long fingers intertwined and its thumbs twiddling together idly.  It was dressed in vaguely medieval attire, with pointed shoes of a merry buff and tight hose of deep green, an embroidered tunic of cheerful lincoln with wide scalloped sleeves each hung with a tiny silver bell, with its waist girded by a long buff belt set with a simple wooden fipple flute thrust casually into it.  Its shoulders were draped with a long scalloped cowl of deep saffron, and on its head was a stocking cap of matching hue with a very long tail terminating with another silver bell. Its head was peculiarly elongated, wider than it was tall, with large, drooping ears protruding almost comically to either side. It’s features were flat and smooth save for slight crows feet about its deep set eyes, which were large, narrow and catlike,  twinkling with cryptic merriment while its lips were set with a wide, inscrutable smile.  

 

The creature sat there, motionless, eyeing her keenly with that smile fixed across its oblong face.  And then it winked.

 

“Good morning, Lindsey.  Where are you going?”

 

Lindsey hesitated a moment.

 

“Uh….I don’t know, I guess.  I was following this trail.”

 

“To where?”

 

“To wherever it led, I guess.”

 

“It led thus far.  Would you care to stop here and have something to eat?”

 

The creature opened his palms as he spoke, and before him now was a large loaf of brown bread, round like a bundt cake and sitting on a raised platter of brass elaborately pierced with a pattern of stars.  

 

Lindsey realized that she was hungry.  And it would be a pretty sorry sort of idiot to have brought her to all the way here just to poison her, so she sat down across from the creature and began to eat with him.

 

The food was delicious, whatever it was.  Somewhere between cake and bread, it was dense and moist, and mildly sweet with a slightly nutty flavor.  Up to now Lindsey hadn’t realized just how hungry she was, and she ate well. Indeed, it felt as though she had not eaten quite so well in years.

 

At length the creature spoke.

 

“Food is good, but what is food without pleasant conversation?  What shall we talk about?”

 

Lindsey snorted to herself, almost coughing on her bread as she did so.  It was about time for some answers.

 

“Maybe you could tell me where I am, and give me an explanation as to why you brought me here.  It was you who brought me here, wasn’t it?”

“We thought it was time we had a proper interview, yes.  You and I are in a transient place at present. For the moment you are here, but soon enough you shall be returned to where you were, if that is your wish.”

“Who is ‘we’?  And who are you?”

 

“My name is Elred.  My people call ourselves the Alva, but most everyone refers to us simply as ‘The Good Folk’.  Rather kind of them to so describe us, I must say.”

 

“Uh huh.  So you’re the ones responsible for all of this?”

 

“All of what, the bread?  Do have another slice!”

 

“Thanks, I think I will.  No, I mean you’re the ones responsible for this whole shindig, getting me and Hae-jin and Joan together to open the vault and all.  The Bird works for you, doesn’t he?”

 

“Ah yes, I see what you mean.  Yes, the Bird is indeed one of our servants.”

 

“He abandoned me.  I went into that vault and got what he wanted, and when I came out he was gone, and Mr. Dackery had to save me.  What do you say to that?”

 

Elred continued to smile pleasantly, but there was a flicker of emotion in his eyes as he briefly pursed his lips before speaking again.

 

“Yes, indeed.  That did happen, didn’t it?  Most unfortunate. Things have not gone quite as planned.”

 

“Are you telling me you’ve screwed up?”

 

“In a word, yes.  Slightly. I like to think that we have experienced only a minor hiccup in our choreography.”

 

“Yeah?  And you expect me to believe that?  You run the whole world, don’t you? That’s what the Bird says.  Now I’m supposed to believe that people as powerful as you screwed up anyway, just like that?”

 

“We built this world, Lindsey.   And likewise we do our best to maintain it all.  This world is our realm, and our responsibility.” 

“You don’t do a very good job.  There is a lot of ugliness in the world; wars, famines, plagues…”

 

“In your world.  The wellbeing of your world is your own business, not ours.  We have far less power in your world than we do in our own, and most of our efforts in that regard are by necessity dedicated to protecting your world from the things which lurk in ours.  Not to say that we don’t have wars and diseases and things here in the Fairworld. We do. But here, we have the power to better manage them so as to minimize their offensiveness. We cannot compel people to do our will, nor are we inclined to rule as brutes and tyrants.  But we do try to do our best behind the scenes to keep things as tidy and pleasant for everyone as possible. Which is where people like you come into the picture. Have some more bread?”

 

For a moment they ate in silence.  At length Elred spoke again.

 

“What happened at the vault, Lindsey?”

 

“We opened it.  I went in, found something to take back, and then came out to find that everybody was gone and only those things which attacked me were there, and then I got away with Mr. Dackery’s help.”

 

“This much we have already learned.  But what happened to you, Lindsey.  How have you fared through all this?  This is what concerns me at the moment.”

 

“Why are you concerned about me?”

 

“I am inclined to be concerned about everybody.  But at the moment I happen to be concerned specifically about you.”

 

“I get it.  You just want me to finish the mission.”

 

“That is entirely up to you, Lindsey.  If you wish, we can take you home and that will be the end of the matter.  But that is not what I’m asking right now. What happened to you at the vault?  How do you feel about it?”

 

“I don’t know.  I’ll have to think about whether or not I want to go through with this.  What happened to the Bird? Why did he leave me?”

 

Elred made no reply.  Lindsey waited, casting as accusative a gaze at him as she could muster, even as her own feelings of hurt and confusion dug at her spirit.  This creature owed her an answer, and he wasn’t giving one.

 

“Well?  Are you going to give me an answer?  Or are you going to string me along too, just like the Bird?”

 

For the first time, Elred’s smile broke, and he appeared distressed.  “I’m afraid I don’t have an answer for you. Not a proper one, at least.  The fact is, we don’t yet know what happened to the Bird. We’ve rather lost track of him for the moment.”

 

“Ha!  That’s rich.”

 

“Entirely true though, I’m afraid.  I must confess, I can offer no explanation for his conduct.  He has not contacted us, and we have not yet located him ourselves.  It is my hope that he is merely a bit discombobulated at the moment. Who knows, he may be quite preoccupied trying to track everybody down.  If not….”

 

Elred fell silent again.

 

“What about Hae-jin and Joan?  And the Wogs and Ursilda?”

 

“Ah, that’s a bit of a sticky problem.  It would appear that the Drixi were alerted to their presence at the vault, and had dispatched a substantial number of soldiers to arrest them.”

 

“What!”

 

“I’m terribly sorry, I do seem to have naught but bad news for you.”

 

“You’ve got to do something!”

 

“We will.  My brethren are already making the necessary arrangements.”

 

“Damn that Bird.  He really has messed up, hasn’t he?”

 

“So it would seem.”

 

“What are you going to do about it?”

 

“That depends.  What are you going to do about it?”

 

“Huh?”

 

“You still have a mission to complete.  If you don’t wish to, we will of course honor your choice and take you home.  But if you wish to continue that will of course change things. How we proceed at this juncture depends on your decision.”

 

“You want me to decide now?”

 

“It would be helpful.”

 

“I don’t know how I feel about this.”

 

“I quite understand.  Here, take this.”

 

Elred opened his hand and produced a small gold coin as if from thin air, and handed it to Lindsey.  

 

“When we are finished here you will be returned to Dackery’s house.  Take time to think things over, and when you have made your decision use the coin.”

 

Lindsey looked at the coin.  It was gold, or at least of gold colored metal, perhaps slightly larger than a penny.  On one side, stamped in high relief was an image of a crescent moon with a face on it, and on the other there was an image of a mountain with a smaller crescent moon to one side above it.

 

“What do I do with it?”

 

“When you are ready to speak with me again, turn it over twice in your hands, and recite the phrase which is written on it.”

 

“Thanks.  I’ll think it over.  I promise.”

 

“Thank you.  But you still haven’t answered my first question.  How are you personally faring through all of this?”

 

Lindsey reflected for a moment.  Elred’s question was unexpected to be sure, and in the whirlwind of experiences over the last few hours she’d really not had a moment to think about how she felt about anything really.  

 

“I guess I don’t know, really.  I mean, I haven’t really had time to think about things.  I guess I’ll have the rest of my life to do that (assuming I don’t get myself killed doing all this).  But I guess I feel….I don’t know….I guess I feel kind of better.”

 

“Better about what?”

 

“I dunno, about everything I guess.  I feel like I’m more free, like I’ve finally had a chance to let go and move on.”

 

“Good, I am glad you are feeling better.  Keep thinking things over, and we shall meet again one day and speak of this again.  In the meanwhile, I clean forgot to provide any butter, and I think bit of water might also be in order, unless you would prefer tea?”

 

“I think I’ll have water.  And some butter, thank you.  I guess I have an appetite.”

 

“Of course you do.  It’s Breakfast after all.  Breakfast after a very long and dark night indeed.”

 

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