The thirteenth unicorn, p.15
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       The Thirteenth Unicorn, p.15

           W. D. Newman
 
CHAPTER 12

  HOB, GOB, AND NOB

  Ben hit the ground with a loud plop and the three dwarves awoke in a flurry of arms and legs. They were on their feet in an instant and their axes seemed to materialize out of thin air into their hands. One of the dwarves had his axe raised, ready to bring it down on top of Ben’s head, when another dwarf yelled out to him.

  “Hob! Stop!”

  The dwarf froze, his axe still poised over his head, his beard quivering.

  “Put your axe down, you lummox, it’s a man child.”

  Hob slowly lowered his axe and bent over to peer at Ben.

  “So it is a man child. Come over here Gob and take a look at this.”

  The three dwarves gathered around Ben, poking him with their fingers and firing questions at him without giving him time to respond.

  “What’s your name, man child?”

  “Where are your parents? Is anyone else with you?”

  “Where are you coming from and where are you going?”

  “What are you doing in our woods, trespassing on our ledge no less?”

  Ben sat up and adjusted his glasses. The dwarves, although rough in manner, did not appear to mean him any harm. He had just startled them.

  “Hold up guys! I can’t answer all of your questions at once.” Slowly, Ben rose to his feet. He recalled reading something, somewhere, about dwarves bowing upon introductions. Placing one arm behind his back and one arm across his stomach, Ben bowed low and introduced himself. “My name is Ben. Ben Alderman. I am from Atlanta Georgia and I am trying to go back there. Who may I ask are you?”

  The dwarves seemed quite impressed with this display of formality and cordiality.

  “Oh, forgive us please,” said the dwarf on the left, who bowed low in return. “My name is Gob, this is Nob, and the gentleman who was about to split your noggin open a few moments ago is Hob.”

  Nob and Hob bowed as well, their beards brushing the tops of their boots.

  “I did not know this was your ledge,” said Ben, “and I apologize for trespassing. I just needed a safe place to sleep tonight.”

  “Safe place indeed. How do we know you are telling us the truth?” asked Hob. “For all we know, you might be looking for our treasure!”

  Gob and Nob immediately kicked Hob in the shins to silence any talk of treasure. Hob swore loudly as he fell to the ground, clutching at his shins.

  “The woods are safe enough,” Gob stated, turning his attention back to Ben. “There are no dragons in these parts. No ogres or trolls. Not even any gnomes.”

  “As a matter of fact, the wildest creature you may find in these woods would be a fox,” Nob added. “So, what were you afraid of?”

  “Snake men,” Ben replied. “I was on your ledge, hiding from the snake men.”

  Hob jumped up, his poor bruised shins now forgotten, and grabbed Ben by the shoulders. “Snake men? What do you mean snake men? Speak, man child!”

  “Okay, okay, let me go,” Ben cried, pulling away from Hob’s grasp. “And quit calling me man child. I told you that my name is Ben.”

  “Okay, Ben,” said Gob, “forgive Hob, he hasn’t any manners. We have many questions to ask you, but first of all you must tell us about the snake men. Please.”

  The three dwarves sat cross-legged on the ground in front of Ben, with their axes across their laps. Ben took a deep breath and started his tale with the visit to the fairy glen. The dwarves actually knew of the fairy glen and were very distraught to learn that the beautiful fountain had been destroyed. They promised Ben that they would return to the fairy glen and repair the fountain the first chance they got. Ben thanked them and continued on with his story. When he got to the part about escaping the three snake men, the dwarves stood up and hurriedly began packing their sacks.

  “What’s going on?” Ben asked. “I haven’t finished my story.”

  Gob looked up while stuffing his sack, “You may finish your tale later. If snakers are about, then the woods are indeed not safe. It is not even safe to pass the night upon this ledge.”

  Hob had finished packing his sack and slung it across his shoulders. “If they are tracking you, and I’m sure they are, they must be near by now. We are going inside.”

  “Inside where?” Ben asked, looking around.

  Gob and Nob hoisted their sacks over their shoulder as well and motioned for Ben to follow them. Hob led the way and entered the crevice Ben was hiding in earlier. Nob followed Hob, then Gob, and Ben brought up the rear. Ben wondered how they would all fit inside and how cramming into the small cave could possibly offer them any protection from the snake men, or snakers as the dwarves called them. When Gob disappeared into the dark opening, Ben shrugged his shoulders and followed. Once he was inside, where it was darker, he held his hands out in front of him, expecting to bump into Gob at any moment. Then, suddenly, a bright light flared in front of him and he saw Gob disappear into a tunnel that had opened up in the rear of the cave. Intrigued by the discovery of this secret passage, Ben followed Gob into the tunnel where Hob was holding up a torch so that everyone could see.

  The torch cast an eerie orange glow around them and made their shadows flicker and dance across the stone walls of the tunnel. The floor was smooth and disappeared straight into the hillside. Once they were all in the tunnel, Nob pushed the stone door shut and the three dwarves set off down the passageway, at a brisk pace.

  “Wait,” Ben cried. “Where are you going? Aren’t we safe here?”

  The dwarves didn’t stop, but Gob motioned for Ben to catch up.

  “We can’t sleep close to the door. The snakers would detect our body heat. There’s a chamber up ahead. We’ll bed down there and pass the remainder of the night.”

  A few minutes later, Hob stopped in front of a massive iron bound wooden door and Nob pushed it open on groaning hinges. When everyone was in the room, Nob pushed the door shut and Gob dropped a thick wooden beam across the door, while Hob lit an old oil lamp with the torch.

  “This is an old treasure room,” said Hob as he extinguished the torch and placed it into a rusty sconce on the wall by the entrance. “That’s why the door is so thick and strong.”

  “Now that the treasure is gone,” said Nob, emphasizing the word gone and looking temptingly at Hob’s shins, “this has become a junk room.”

  “But, it’s also a handy place to sleep when we are late getting home and have need to be inside,” Gob added.

  The room was about the size of Ben‘s bedroom. Against the back wall, a small table was laden with an assortment of oil lamps and clay jugs filled with oil. In the corner of the room was a pile of rusty and broken shovels and pick axes. The three dwarves pulled blankets out of their sacks and rolled them out on the floor in the center of the room. Hob pulled an extra blanket out of his sack and tossed it to Ben. “Let’s get some shut-eye. In the morning, you can tell us your whole story and then we’ll decide what to do.”

  Ben didn’t argue. He could hardly keep his eyes open. Stretching out on the thick woolen blanket, he was asleep before Hob could even trim the lantern.

  The next morning, Gob had to shake Ben to wake him. Ben opened his eyes to find Gob staring at him, just inches from his face. “Good morning, Ben. You sleep like a dwarf. Are you sure you’re a man child?”

  Ben sat up and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. “I’m starving,” he moaned.

  “Well, get up and let’s get moving. We’ve nothing to eat here, but we can be at our home in a couple of hours and there, we’ll have a grand feast.”

  “And after we are done with our breakfast,” Hob added, “you may finish your story and regale us with tales of your grand adventures.”

  The march through the rest of the tunnel seemed to take much longer than a couple of hours. Along the way, they passed several more doors, all of which were shut. Finally, the tunnel ended at another door, beyond which they found themselves in a round chamber. In this
chamber were thirteen doors, just like the one they had just passed through, evenly spaced around the walls.

  “This door,” said Hob, pointing to the door they had just entered, “opens into the tunnel that leads to the ledge. These other doors open to tunnels that lead nowhere. These tunnels are long and winding with many twists and turns, but no way out. All except one. And that door opens into our home. Can you tell which one?”

  Ben slowly walked around the room and examined each door. All of the doors looked exactly the same. He looked closely at the door handles to see if one might be shiny with use, but they all were polished to a shiny gleam. Lastly, he examined the floor, but could find no clues there either. “May I see the torch?” he asked, turning to Hob.

  Hob handed Ben the torch. Ben walked around the room once more, holding the torch to the edge of each door to see if some small current of air might cause the flame to flicker and reveal to him which door to choose. Still no luck.

  Then he smiled. He’d just open every door! Handing the torch back to Hob, Ben opened the door to the right of the one they had just come through. Then, he went to the next door. But as soon as his hand touched the handle, the door he had just opened slammed shut and the floor began to move. The three dwarves roared with laughter, as the floor spun in circles. Poor Ben turned green, as the doors flipped by in rapid succession. When the floor finally came to a halt, Ben put his hand against the wall to steady himself.

  “Okay, I give up,” he said, holding his stomach and thanking his lucky stars that he had not eaten breakfast yet. “Which one is it?”

  Hob smiled. “We work very hard to keep our home and our mines secret. As you just found out, you cannot open all of the doors at once. The ledge door and the home door may stay open at all times. But, only one dead-end tunnel door may be opened at any one time. As soon as you open a second dead-end tunnel door, all of the doors will close and the floor will spin to disorient you. Do you even know which door we came through now?”

  Ben shook his head. He certainly did not want to try and find out either.

  Hob smiled again and continued. “The hinges on the doors that open into the dead end tunnels are ever so slightly tilted so that if someone enters one, the door will eventually close while they are exploring the tunnel. When they discover the tunnel is a dead end, and if they ever manage to find the door again, they will discover that it is not only closed, but locked as well. You see, the doors to these dead end tunnels can only be opened from inside this chamber.”

  Ben looked around the room, a new worry forming in his mind. “I am sure that my Grandma and Amos are looking for me by now. What if they find this tunnel and they get caught in one of these traps?”

  “That would be a problem,” said Hob. “We wouldn’t really be able to even know if they had stumbled into one.”

  “I wouldn’t worry about it, Ben,” said Gob. “Even if they manage to track you to the ledge, I doubt very seriously they will be able to find the tunnel entrance.”

  Nob was pulling nervously on his beard. “They could find it you know. Remember that cave troll that found it a couple of years ago?”

  Hob and Gob shivered. The cave troll never even explored the tunnel, he just took up residence right inside the ledge entrance. It took them days to drive him out. But Nob was right, there was a slim chance they could find the tunnel entrance and if they did, the odds of them getting lost in one of the dead end tunnels were pretty good.

  “Drat,” said Hob. “What are we to do? We can’t very well hang a sign on the door that says ‘Dwarves Live Here.’ What if the snakers find the tunnel? Do you want them slithering into our home while we are asleep and pricking us with their poison darts? Do you want to be hauled off to who-knows-where to meet their queen and play with her?”

  “Which door leads to your home?” Ben asked.

  “That one,” said Gob, pointing to a door across the room.

  “I have an idea,” Ben said. “I need something to write with though.”

  Hob raised a questioning eyebrow.

  “Trust me,” said Ben, “I don’t want the snakers to find us either. I’m going to write something and only my Grandma and my sister will know what it means.”

  “A secret code?” asked Nob, rubbing his hands together. Dwarves liked secret codes, almost as much as treasure. Some have even said that dwarves only mined the precious metals and gems, so that they could have a reason for dreaming up secret codes with which to hide them.

  Ben thought for a moment. “Yes. It is a secret code that only my Grandmother and my sister will be able to solve.”

  Hob nodded to Gob who disappeared into the door leading to their home and returned a few minutes later with a lump of coal. Ben took the coal and made his way around the room, writing on each and every door. When he finished, he gave the lump of coal back to Gob and wiped his hands on his pants. Hob then walked around the room and studied the numbers that Ben had written on each door. Every door had a different number. Gob and Nob studied the numbers as well. Finally, unable to crack the code, they admitted they were stumped. Hob was also satisfied that no one could determine which door led to their home, without knowing Ben’s secret code. He nodded in satisfaction.

  “Very good,” he said. “Let’s get some breakfast now and then you may finish your tale.”

  “And later, you will have to teach us this code too,” Nob added, still staring at the strange numbers.

  *****

 
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