The thirteenth unicorn, p.14
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       The Thirteenth Unicorn, p.14

           W. D. Newman


  When Amos bellowed for the children to run, everyone went into action, except Ben. Ben simply froze. At first, it was fear that rooted his feet to the ground, but as he watched Jenny disappear into the thick laurel behind Joey, he realized that if any kind of horrible monster gave pursuit, he would be the one to get caught. He also realized that if he followed the others into the thicket, he might also endanger them by putting the monster (or whatever it was they were running from) onto their trail. So, Ben, without even knowing it, did the bravest and most unselfish act of his entire life. He stayed behind in the fairy glen while the others escaped, hoping to find a place to hide and hoping to catch up with the others when the danger had passed.

  After the others disappeared from sight, Ben overcame his fear and frantically began looking for a hiding place. Nearby, on the edge of the clearing, to his right, he noticed a thick clump of hedge with dark green shiny leaves that looked very much like the boxwoods bordering the fence by his grandparent’s front yard. He remembered playing hide-and-go-seek once and hiding inside one of the boxwoods. No one ever found him there. Not seeing any other suitable places to hide, he made a dash for the shrub and clawed his way inside. The center of the shrub was, in fact, hollow and Ben was able to sit on top of the root ball with the plant’s thick woody stems curving out around him. The leaves were too dense to allow him to see what was going on, so he sat as still as possible, straining his ears for any noise. A loud crash broke the silence. Startled, Ben almost fell from his hiding place. After recovering his composure, he slowly parted the branches to see what was happening.

  In the center of the clearing, the large red granite slab had toppled over and the fountain of water was now gouging a big muddy hole into the earth where the rock had once stood. Movement caught Ben’s eyes. At first he thought it was a fairy, but when he looked toward the movement, the creature did not disappear. Ben sucked in his breath. The creature was dark brown in color and the sunlight glinted on its skin when it walked. Actually, the creature appeared to glide across the ground. No, that did not quite describe how it moved either. The creature seemed to slither as it walked. Like a snake. More of them entered the clearing and began to fan out, as if searching for something. Ben let the branches close and very slowly sat back down on top of the root ball. Fear clasped an iron hand around his lungs and began to squeeze. Panicking, he began to dig around in his pockets for his inhaler, and a dry rustling sound made him freeze. His hand closed on the inhaler as the rustling sound came closer. Movement at the top of the shrub made Ben look up just in time to see two big luminous serpentine eyes staring down at him. Without thinking, Ben raised his inhaler and fired two quick bursts into the creature’s eyes. The snake man (this was the name that popped into Ben’s head) reeled backwards, clawing at its face while Ben tumbled out the other side of the shrub and landed on his back. Not waiting to see what was going to happen next, Ben rolled over and sprang to his feet. Attempting to flee, he only managed a single step before a searing white, hot bolt of pain shot through his shoulder and sent him stumbling back to the ground. His limbs were instantly heavy and, in just moments, the world around him began a slow and steady descent into darkness. The last thing he heard before the darkness completely engulfed him was that strange rustling sound.

  When Ben awoke, to his horror, he found himself captive and dangling from a long pole by his hands and feet. He had some kind of crudely woven sack over his head, but he found that if he squinted his eyes just right, he could see through the loosely woven threads. Two snake men, with the pole on their shoulders, were carrying him. Every muscle in Ben’s body ached and, once again, he felt his lungs closing up in the icy grip of fear. Mercifully, he passed out.

  The next time he opened his eyes, he was laying on the ground. His hands and feet were untied and the sack was gone from his head. Lying as still as possible, he cracked his eyes open and took in his surroundings. Three of the snake men were sitting not far from him. They seemed to be communicating with each other - hissing and clicking as they waved their hands. One of them turned to look at Ben. Satisfied that Ben was still unconscious, he turned back to the others and the clicking and hissing started up again. Ben could not see any other snake men, but he was certain there were more. Maybe, they were scouting ahead. Or maybe, they were looking for the others. Slowly, Ben flexed the muscles in his legs. They were stiff and a little sore, but he knew he had to make a break for it. Whatever these creatures had in store for him could not be good. After taking two deep breaths and counting to three, Ben sprang to life, rolling over and digging in his heels, he took off like a race horse out of the starting gate. He had gone no more than ten or fifteen yards when his foot caught on a rock and sent him sprawling to the ground. On his way down, he heard a whistling noise and felt the air stir as something whizzed over his head. Quickly, he scrambled to his feet and began running in a zigzag pattern. The snake men were shooting at him. Probably darts. It was coming back to him now. Rolling out of the shrub in the fairy glen. The searing hot pain in his shoulder. The darkness. More darts whizzed past him and a surge of adrenaline sped him on even faster. Ben ran and ran. Tree limbs slapped at his face, brambles tore at his legs. He ran until he thought his lungs would burst and then, he ran some more. Finally, unable to go any further, he collapsed in a patch of reeds and grasses that were growing beside a rushing stream.

  After a brief rest, Ben stood up and listened for his pursuers. There was no sign of them. The only sounds were the sounds of the forest; wind in the trees, an occasional bird, and water babbling over the stones behind him. Everything seemed so eerily normal that it was hard to believe he was fleeing from creatures that should only exist in dark fantasies and bad nightmares. Several minutes passed. Finally satisfied that he had eluded his captors, and aware that the afternoon was wearing on, he turned his attention to getting back home. The others, if they hadn’t been captured, were probably worried to death about him and were, more than likely, out looking for him right now. However, the first thing he had to do was find some cover where he could think. He followed the stream into the forest and found a suitable place beneath an old cedar where he could hide and sort out his dilemma. Parting the limbs, he crawled underneath the ancient shaggy branches and leaned back against the trunk. Pushing his glasses up on his nose, he began to count on his fingers:

  1: The snake men were carrying him downhill.

  2: It would be logical to assume they were carrying him away from the fairy glen.

  3: When he fled the snake men, he fled downhill.

  4: That would mean at least three of the snake men were between him and the fairy glen.

  5: That would mean that the remaining snake men were either scouting ahead, and could be anywhere around him, or they were pursuing the others and he would run into them later.

  6: If he did not act quickly, he might end up having to spend the night in Camelot, alone.

  That last point spurred him into action. Ben crawled out from under the cedar and brushed the needles off his pants. He would have to make a wide circle to get back to the top of the hill, so he decided to follow the stream. Maybe the stream originated from the fountain of water in the fairy glen. He walked as quietly as possible, following what seemed to be a well worn path that meandered alongside the twisting stream bed. Minutes stretched into hours and the evening sun began to cast a rosy glow on the western sky.

  “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight,” Ben mumbled to himself. “Should be a pretty day here tomorrow. With any luck, I won’t be here to see it.”

  As the western sky turned rosy, the eastern sky began to darken and the first star of the evening twinkled faintly above. Much to Ben's dismay, it occurred to him that he was not going to make it back before nightfall. He must have been unconscious longer than he realized and that meant he was probably further away from the fairy glen than he had hoped. He
had been traveling in a westerly direction and assumed that it would now be safe to turn back towards the north to begin his long trek to the top of whatever hill he was skirting. He did not want to spend the night out in the open, so he decided to follow the stream a little further to look for a safe place where he could hole up for the night.

  He followed the path for a while longer; eventually, the path began to diverge from the stream and slowly wound its way up the hillside. Soon the path ended at the base of a towering rock wall that jutted out from the side of the hill. After a brief search, Ben found small steps carved into the rock and followed them up to a ledge about twenty feet above the ground. The ledge was no more than three or four feet wide and at the back of the ledge there was a crevice in the rock wall that offered protection from the wind, or any dew that might fall during the night. Ben crawled into the crevice and, after exploring every nook and cranny to make sure there were no spiders or snakes present, lay down on the hard stone, instantly falling into an exhausted sleep.

  Ben had no idea how long he had been asleep, but the sound of footsteps roused him instantly and he scrambled as far back into the crevice as he could. In here there was total blackness, but just outside, the moon cast a silvery sheen on the ledge that lit the night up just enough for him to make out the huge gnarled trunks of the pine trees, that were growing just beyond the ledge. The footsteps were coming from the stone staircase. Had the snake men been able to track him this far? How many were there? It sounded like at least three.

  “Hurry up, Hob. I’m done in for.”

  “Yes, Hob, get up here. I can hardly keep my eyes open.”

  “I’m coming, I’m coming. You’re not the only ones tired tonight. I have twice as much in my sack as the two of you together, so quit your grumbling and give me a hand up.”

  Ben listened intently to the commotion outside. He was relieved it was not the snake men, but still very wary about whom it might be. For all he knew, it could be three big ugly trolls, ten feet tall with warts, fangs and claws, ready to pounce and devour him at once. Whoever they were, or whatever they were, bedded down to the left of the crevice, just out of his sight. Once they settled down, it was just a matter of minutes before the night sounds of forest insects were drowned out by the sound of their snoring.

  After they had been snoring soundly for about half an hour, Ben crept to the opening in the rock wall. He could not pass the night here. The creatures might have passed him by in the dark, but in the light of morning they would see him clearly in the shallow crevice. Fortunately, the moon was bright enough for Ben to see and when he poked his head out of the shadows, he saw three short, but very powerfully built men lying on their backs, side by side, with their large hands folded across the long flowing beards on their chests.

  “Dwarves!” Ben thought in amazement. However, he did not know if dwarves were good creatures or evil creatures. In all of the stories he had ever read, they were basically good. But those were stories and this was real, so he decided not to take any chances. He couldn’t go back down the stairs because the dwarves had the way blocked, so he crawled out onto the ledge, slowly got to his feet, and began carefully inching his way to the right. The ledge ran on for about thirty feet and gradually began to disappear. Ben felt along the rock face for stairs that might lead up. When he found none, he lay down on his stomach and felt along the wall below the ledge. Dismayed, he realized that this was a dead end and the only way down was the way he came up. Tip-toeing back towards the stairs, he came within three feet of the sleeping dwarves. Their heads were touching the rock wall, their feet stuck out over the ledge, and they were sleeping shoulder to shoulder. The only place Ben could step was between their heads. Maybe he should just go back into the crevice and pass the night there anyways. Maybe the dwarves knew this was a dead end, and maybe, they were just spending the night up here like he was. The steps leading up here were small steps after all. These three dwarves may have even carved them. Then again, if they did carve those steps, that meant that this ledge belonged to them and they might not take kindly to Ben’s trespassing. So, taking a deep breath, he hugged the rock wall and stepped over the first dwarf’s head with his right foot and stood there for several seconds, waiting for his heart to quit hammering in his chest. For a moment, he was afraid that the dwarves would actually hear his heart beating and wake up to find him straddled over them. When his pulse finally calmed down, he lifted his left foot and placed it beside his right foot. So far so good. All three of the dwarves were still snoring loudly. Ben then raised his right foot to step over the next dwarf’s head and froze. The next dwarf’s eyes were wide open. Ben teetered, and tried to bring his right foot back down, but lost his balance. As he began to fall, he frantically tried to find purchase with his hands on the rock wall. At the last second, he hopped back over the first dwarf and landed with a loud thud on his backside.


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