The thirteenth unicorn, p.13
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       The Thirteenth Unicorn, p.13
 

           W. D. Newman
CHAPTER 10

  SNAKERS

  The kids scrambled behind Amos as the huge giant rushed back into the forest and up the hillside. This time he did not take the path they had followed down from the top, but plunged into a dense growth of laurel and brambles. The thorns tore at their clothes and the limbs slapped at their arms and legs as they plunged deeper and deeper into the thicket. Then, Amos abruptly turned left, parallel to the side of the mountain, and started leading them away from the clearing at an even faster pace. Casey, Joey, and Jenny were right behind him, too terrified to look over their shoulder. A tremendous crash erupted from the clearing behind them and images of red-scaled fire breathing dragons arose in Casey’s mind, spurring her on even faster. She had already left Joey and Jenny behind and was steadily gaining ground, catching up with Amos when, suddenly, the giant man disappeared. One second he was in front of her, thrashing through the underbrush like a charging bull elephant, the next second, he was simply gone. Casey did not even have time to process this turn of events because, in the next instance, her feet shot out from under her and she found herself sliding down a steep embankment into a shallow ravine. Amos was waiting for her at the bottom. He promptly snatched her up and shoved her into a small hole in the side of the bank. Joey slid down immediately after Casey and, a couple of seconds later, Jenny followed. Amos shoved them both inside the hole as well and waited for Ben. Seconds ticked by. No Ben. No sound of pursuit. Nothing. Finally, not daring to wait any longer, Amos crouched down and crawled into the hole with the children.

  The hole in the side of the ravine wall was actually a small entrance to a cave. It was hidden from view by a thick veil of woody vines that grew from the top of the ravine, to the bottom. The entrance was a tight squeeze for Amos, but with a little wiggling, and with the kids tugging on his furs, he finally made it inside.

  “Where’s Ben?” Casey whispered frantically.

  “I don’t know,” Amos replied.

  “We shouldn’t have left him like that, he can’t run fast!” Casey cried, tears welling up in her eyes.

  Amos put his finger to her lips to silence her. “If we all get caught, we’ll be of no help to your brother. Now be quiet and listen.”

  They huddled together in the darkness, staring at the bright opening, straining their ears for any sound of Ben and his pursuers. A couple of times they thought they heard a twig snap, as if someone accidentally stepped on a limb while trying to move stealthily through the underbrush. Both times everyone held their breaths, but nothing else happened. An hour passed before Amos would permit them to speak or move, and even then, he would only allow them to whisper.

  “What were we running from?” Jenny asked, her lips trembling.

  “And what made that huge crashing sound?” Joey added.

  Casey was now hysterical. “What happened to Ben, Amos? We have to find him. Find Ben and take us home, please!” she cried.

  Amos put his arms around the three children and pulled them close. “Listen to me. I’ll answer all of your questions, but not now and not here. We have to get back to the cabin first. Louise needs to know about this and we are going to need her help as well. And right now, Casey, there is nothing we can do for Ben. I feel pretty certain that he is okay, for now, and we will get him back but, you are going to have to trust me that now is not the time.”

  Casey wiped the tears from her eyes and nodded.

  “Good girl. Now, I am going to go out and have a quick look around. I want you kids to stay right here until I get back, understand?”

  The kids nodded as one.

  “Count slowly to one hundred,” Amos continued. “If I am not back by the time you get to one hundred, I want you to count to one hundred again and then head back to the cabin on your own. When you get to the cabin, Louise will want to know what’s happened. All you need to say to her is snakers.”

  “Snakers?” Jenny asked. “What does that mean?”

  “I don’t have time to explain now,” said Amos. “Louise will know what it means.”

  “Which way is the cabin?” Joey asked.

  “Follow the ravine to your left, until it runs out into a field. From there, go uphill to the top of the mountain. When you start back down the other side of the mountain, you will come across the trail that leads to the fairy glen. Go left on that trail to get back to my cabin.”

  Amos crawled from the cave and, with all of his furs, looked very much like an old grizzly bear awakening from a long winter sleep. Casey began counting. It seemed as though she was counting to one thousand instead of one hundred but, by the time she reached eighty-seven, Amos reappeared at the cave opening.

  “Come on out,” he whispered. “Follow along behind me and move as quietly as possible. And absolutely no talking until we are back at the cabin. Can you do that?”

  Once again, all three nodded as one.

  “Good. Follow me now and remember, keep quiet.”

  The three children scrambled out after him and together they trudged up the ravine as it wound its way up the hillside. The ravine was really nothing more than a large ditch, carved into the earth over the centuries by some nameless river, long dead and silent now for many years. In some places this ditch, or river bed, was twelve to fifteen feet deep. In other places, it was only three to four feet deep. In the shallow stretches, Amos and the children would pause and listen for several minutes, then crouch down and hurry through to the deeper parts that could shield them from unfriendly eyes. Soon, they came to a shallow stretch that widened out into a field strewn with small boulders and dotted with small twisted scrub pines and broom sage. Amos led them out of the field and into the tall pines, taking them straight up the hillside. When they reached the top, they paused to listen and catch their breath. The woods were eerily quiet. No birds were singing, no squirrels were chattering. Even the wind was silent. Amos motioned for the children to follow and started down the other side of the hill. In a few minutes, they came upon the path that led back to the cabin and, there, they broke into a brisk jog. Casey, however, truly terrified for her brother, could not hold back any longer. She sprinted ahead, with a sudden burst of speed that surprised everyone and even Amos, with his long legs, could not keep pace with her.

  Louise was sweeping the ashes off the hearth when Amos and the kids burst through the door screaming. They surrounded her and began talking wildly, all at once. It took a few seconds for Louise’s heart to slow back down to a fast gallop and, as soon as she gathered her wits about her, she realized that Ben was missing. Her heart leapt into her throat and then slammed against her chest like a jack hammer.

  “SILENCE!” she screamed.

  Amos and the children froze.

  “Kids - sit down at the table and zip your lips,” Louise ordered, pointing to the benches. Then she turned an icy glare on Amos and planted her hands on her hips. “Where is Ben?”

  “Snakers,” Amos whispered.

  The color drained from her face. Her mouth was moving, but no words were coming out, then her eyes rolled back into her head as she fainted and collapsed into Amos’s arms.

  “Joey, get the pail and fetch some water from the well,” Amos instructed, while he gently laid Louise on the cot and arranged the pillow behind her head. Joey brought the bucket in and set it on the floor by the cot. Amos pulled a rag from beneath his furs, dipped it into the icy water, and began to dab Louise on her forehead. She moaned, then slowly opened her eyes and looked around, as if she did not know where she was. When her memory returned, she bolted upright in bed and grabbed Amos by his beard with both of her hands.

  “Tell me everything that happened. Do not leave out even the tiniest detail.”

  Amos recounted the story of their visit to the fairy glen, occasionally glancing over at the children, who would verify his account with a nod of their heads. When he finished, Casey spoke up.

  “Grandma, what are snakers?”

  Louise sta
red at the children for several seconds, then rose from the bed and walked over to sit with them at the table.

  “Snake people,” Louise whispered. “They are all very, very wicked creatures.” She placed her face in her hands and began to sob.

  “What’s going to happen to Ben?” Casey asked, her eyes brimming once more with tears. “Is he going to be okay? Are they going to eat him?”

  Amos walked over and patted Louise on the shoulder. “Nothing is going to happen to Ben if we hurry. Louise, if we are to get the child back, we must leave now.”

  Louise stood. “You’re right. We’ve no time to lose. But first, you children are going back to our own world. If what Ben said about the Merlin Tree is true, and I believe it is, then no matter how long it takes me to get back with him we should arrive home shortly after you do.”

  Now, Casey stood. “I’m not going back.”

  “Oh yes you are, dear.”

  “No, I’m not. You cannot make me leave and even if you could, I would just turn around and come right back. I feel responsible for Ben. I shouldn’t have run off and left him, and I am going to help find him and bring him back.”

  “I’m not going back either,” Joey declared. Casey smiled at him with teary, but thankful, eyes.

  Then, Jenny piped up. “Well, if Joey is not going back, then neither am I.”

  Louise tried to stare the children down, but they stood their ground with their chins defiantly up in the air. “Oh well,” she sighed. “If you are determined to go, I guess I cannot truly stop you and I’d rather have you with me where I can keep an eye on you than have you sneaking about on your own. Amos, get my cloak and staff please.”

  Amos retrieved a brown hooded cloak from a peg on the wall and slim wooden staff from beside the fireplace. He helped Louise into the cloak and handed the staff to her, then went over to rummage in the trunk under the window. Louise urged him to hurry and, frantically, he picked the trunk up and turned it over, spilling its contents all over the floor. Scrambling around on his hands and knees, feeling through the pile of things scattered around him, he finally found what he was seeking.

  “Ah-ha! There you are!” he cried, pulling out a wicked looking double bladed axe. The handle was as thick as a man’s arm and as long as any of the kids were tall. Amos stood and hefted the axe. He twirled it over his head with one hand and then stuffed it into the belt around his furs. Louise and the children were already across the small yard and were entering the trail at the edge of the pines. Amos shut the door of his cabin and loped after them. Once again he looked like a big grizzly bear, only this time he did not appear as a bear still groggy from a long winters nap. This time he looked like an angry sow bear, charging down on some unsuspecting creature for venturing too close to her cubs.

  *****

 
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