The thirteenth unicorn, p.19
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       The Thirteenth Unicorn, p.19

           W. D. Newman


  Ben watched the snakers on the shoreline fade into the distance as the dwarves paddled the boat into the center of the lake, where the current picked them up and sped them along even faster. The dwarves put their oars down and began making sure everything was secure, before they hit the rapids. Ben had gone white water rafting with his church youth group last summer. He was a little scared and at the same time, a little excited too.

  “How long before we hit the rapids?”

  “Not long,” Hob replied. “Less than half an hour. Here, take this piece of rope and secure yourself around the waist.”

  While Ben was knotting his rope, he noticed that each one of the dwarves had a rope around their waist as well. “What are these for?”

  “If anyone falls out of the boat, we can haul them back in.”

  “Won’t that be dangerous?”

  “How so?”

  “Could that not cause the boat to tip over?”

  Hob laughed. “Not this boat. This is an elfin boat. This boat does two things other boats will not do. One, it will not tip over. Two, this boat will travel upstream without anyone having to paddle.”

  “Wow,” Ben exclaimed. “Then why did we have to paddle out to the center of the lake?”

  “Because we were not paddling upstream!” Hob replied, as if the answer was as obvious as the beard on his chin.

  Ben scratched his head and then Gob laughed. “Hob is not very good at explanations. The elves built these boats specifically to travel from the Twilight to the shores of Long Lake; the lake below our cabin. Many years ago, there was a trading post and a small settlement on the lake. Elves, dwarves, and men all traded there. Now, the trading post and settlement are gone and this one boat is all that remains.”

  “What happened?” Ben asked.

  “The battle with the witch happened,” said Hob. “She came down from the north, during one of the coldest winters I can remember.”

  “She brought tens of thousands of snow golems with her,” Gob added. “She sent half of them to our home at Dwarvenhall and she led the other half in a direct assault on the Twilight.”

  “Snow golems?” Ben asked, with wide eyes.

  “Yes, snow golems. Creatures animated by magic. Black magic. Nothing would stop them at first. Swords, axes, spears, even clubs, were used against them. You could chop one’s head off with a sword and the head would explode into a flurry of snow flakes. Those flakes would whirl around in the air and stick to that headless body and a new head would sprout up right before your eyes.”

  “How did you beat them?”

  “Flaming arrows. That was the only thing that would stop them. A flaming arrow through the chest, where the heart should be, would break the spell. Anyway, to answer you question, many lives were lost on both sides in that battle. After that, the elves withdrew from the world of man and retreated to the Twilight. They have been there ever since. The dwarves that were not at Dwarvenhall returned home as well.”

  “Then why are you guys not living in Dwarvenhall?”

  “Enough questions,” exclaimed Hob, yanking on his beard with one hand and rubbing his shins with the other.

  The trip through the rapids was short and uneventful. The river widened out into a deep and slow moving thing that lazily wound its way through the forested hills. Eventually, the curves and bends fell behind and the river straightened out as it left the pines and spilled out onto a large rolling meadow. In the distance, the river disappeared into a dark haze that looked like a smudge on the horizon.

  “What’s that?” Ben asked, pointing at the smoky gray blot at the end of the river.

  “That’s the Twilight,” Nob answered.

  In a couple of hours, the hazy smudge came into focus and revealed a small forest with a gaping black maw into which the river disappeared. Ben was a little disappointed. He was expecting some giant magical forest, where gold and silver leaves adorned each and every tree. He was expecting white embattlements around the forest, with spiraling towers and bright pennants snapping in the breeze. This was no different than any other forest he had ever seen. It was small too. There could not be more than fifty or so elves living in there.

  “Looks small,” he muttered.

  “It is small,” Nob replied, “on the outside.”

  “What do you mean?” Ben asked.

  “No time now,” said Gob standing up and untying his rope, “we dock up ahead.”

  “Duck,” said Ben.

  “No, dock,” said Gob.

  “DUCK!” Ben, Hob, and Nob all yelled at once.

  Gob planted his fists on his hips and fixed them with an angry glare. He opened his mouth to retort and the low lying tree limb whacked him soundly on the head and tumbled him overboard into the water.

  “He’s not tied!” Hob yelled. “Ben, keep your eyes on him. Nob, bring the boat around.”

  Ben saw that they were not going to make it. Gob was fighting furiously to keep his head above the water, but the current was sucking him down as it pulled him further away from the canoe. Without thinking, Ben untied the rope from his waist and dove into the icy water. When he surfaced he spotted Gob, no longer thrashing, just bobbing along, face down in the water. Ben swam toward him and, with the current pushing him along, he reached him quickly. Grabbing the dwarf by the hood of his cloak, Ben began swimming across the river, fighting the current and pulling Gob along behind him. He spotted Hob and Nob upstream, paddling madly on an intersect course. They reached him, about twenty feet from the bank.

  “I’ve got him,” yelled Hob. “Grab Ben!”

  Nob reached over the edge, grabbed Ben by his wrist and pulled him into the boat. It took all three of them to pull the cold and lifeless dwarf back into the boat. Once they had him in, Hob scooped him up and cradled his head in his arms and sobbed while Nob held his hands and wept bitterly. Ben had to yell to get their attention.

  “Guys! Lay him down flat on his back; it may not be too late to save him.”

  The two dwarves laid their friend down on the bottom of the boat and Ben began CPR. Soon, to Hob’s and Nob’s amazement, Gob was sputtering, spitting, and flailing about in the boat.

  “You’re no man child, you’re a wizard!” said Hob, narrowing his eyes and clenching his fists.

  “Hob, wizard or not, he just saved Gobs’ life. Show some gratitude. If he is a wizard, he may just turn you into a toad.”

  Hob thought this over for a moment then relaxed his fists. “Nob is right. Thank you, Ben. Thank you for saving Gobs’ life. We are deeply indebted to you.”

  Ben started to reply when suddenly, everything around them darkened and Gob jumped up and cried in a loud whisper, “We’re entering the Twilight!”

  Hob and Nob whirled around to see the entrance slowly retreating away from them, as the boat glided deeper into the dark and forbidden forest. They promptly fainted. Ben turned to Gob. “What do we do now?”

  “Steer the boat to shore. We need to get everyone out of the boat and pull it up on the beach. Then we’ll push it back into the water and climb back inside. That should cause it to begin the return trip upstream to Long Lake.”

  Ben picked up an oar and began paddling, while Gob set about reviving Hob and Nob. When the boat bumped the shoreline and slid to a stop, everyone on board scrambled off, pushed the boat back into the river and climbed back on board. The boat floated gently back to the shore. They tried again with no luck. They tried a third time and a fourth time and each time the boat would float back to the shore. They even tried paddling the boat, but the best they could do was to maintain their position in the river.

  “What’s wrong?” Hob asked. “It’s never done this before.”

  “We’ve never taken it into the Twilight before,” Nob answered.

  “I can still see the entrance,” said Gob. “Let’s carry the stupid boat and hike out of here.”

  “I don
t think we can do that, guys,” said Ben.

  “And why not?” asked Hob.

  “Look,” said Ben, pointing down the river.

  Coming up the river toward them was a beautiful black boat, shaped in the form of a swan. The swan boat steadily approached them, neatly cleaving the water below the graceful neck that was the prow. Like a ghost ship, it passed by them and softly beached on the shore they had just left. There was no one on board.

  “We’re dead, we’re dead, oh no, we’re dead,” Nob wailed.

  “Shut up, Nob!” cried Gob. “That boat is empty.”

  “I think we’re supposed to get in that boat,” said Ben.

  “Nonsense!’ Gob answered. “If we get in that boat, we’ll never see the outside world again.”

  “Gob’s right, Ben,” said Hob. “Let’s get our boat out of the water and leave at once.”

  The dwarves put the oars down and their boat drifted back to shore and beached beside the swan boat. Once everyone was out, Hob tried to pull the small boat out of the water. This time the boat would not budge. Hob dug his heels into the sand and pulled harder and Gob wrapped his arms around Hob's waist and pulled too. Nothing.

  “Leave the blasted boat,” said Hob. “Let’s get our gear and go.”

  Ben and the dwarves got their sacks from the boat and set off across the beach. They had gone no more than a few yards when their feet began sinking into the soft white sand. With every step they took to leave the forest, their feet sank deeper into the sand and the harder they fought, the more the sand pulled them down. Soon sand was over everyone’s knees and no one had the strength to fight it any longer.

  “It’s been nice knowing you, Ben,” Hob panted. “I hope things turn out better for your family and friends. Goodbye, Gob. Goodbye, Nob.”

  “Goodbye, Hob,” Gob and Nob cried in unison. “Goodbye, Ben.”

  With their goodbyes said, the three dwarves managed to form a small huddle where they threw their arms around each other and began to sob.

  “Hey guys, knock it off. I really think we are supposed to get in the swan boat. Look, if you move back toward the boat, the sand releases its hold.”

  Ben took a step toward the boat and his foot did not sink in quite as deep. Another step, then another. Now the sand was only up to his ankles. The three dwarves scrambled for the boat. Soon all of them were once again, on firm footing.

  “Wait!” said Hob, as Ben moved nearer the swan boat. “I still think it is a bad idea to get on that boat. We can’t leave the way we came in and we can’t hike out of here on the beach. That leaves us with only one last option for escape.”

  Hob and Nob looked at the menacing forest, their hands moving slowly to their axes. Ben thought it over for a moment, then decided that Hob was right - not because he feared meeting the elves, but because any delays could prove perilous for his Grandma, sister and three new friends.

  “Okay, let’s try it.”

  Everyone shouldered their packs and advanced on the trees with axes in hand. As they approached, the trees appeared to draw closer to each other, while their limbs drooped down and began to knit together to form a barrier. Gob raised his axe to clear a path. Abruptly, the axe flew from his hands and disappeared into the thick tangle of branches. Hob and Nob rushed the trees and their axes were effortlessly plucked from their hands as well. Ben laid his axe down on the beach and tried to walk into the forest, but the trees would not permit it. The dwarves tried too. They tried assaulting the forest together at one spot and were beaten back by the long whipping limbs. They tried splitting up and charging the forest from four different spots at the same time, to no avail.

  Finally, Nob relented. “I agree with Ben. I don’t think we have a choice. What do you think, Hob?”

  Hob pulled angrily at his beard while he glared at the trees. “All right. Let’s all get into the stupid swan boat.”

  Everyone loaded their gear onto the swan boat and, as soon as the last person stepped off the shore, the boat slid back into the water, swung around, and headed downstream into the heart of the Twilight. The three dwarves sat down in the boat and covered their faces, resigned to their fate, while Ben eagerly watched the shoreline, hoping to catch a glimpse of an elf. The river meandered through the forest for at least half an hour, before it emerged from beneath the canopy of leaves into bright sunshine.

  “We’re coming out,” said Ben with a hint of disappointment in his voice.

  “No, we’re not,” said Hob.

  “Sure we are. Is this the village where we are supposed to stay tonight? I’ve never seen a town like this,” Ben remarked. “It looks more like a campground. Like a deserted gypsy campground.”

  Hob and his two companions rose to their feet and peered at the structures in the village. Tents. Tents of all shapes, sizes and colors dotted the hillside, along the river bank. There were round tents, square tents, triangular tents and octagon shaped tents. Some tents were small, just large enough to stand upright in, while others were as big as circus tents. There were solid color tents, mostly blues and greens, and many colored tents with vertical stripes, in all the colors of the rainbow. However, no one was out and about and the city of tents was eerily quiet. No laughter of children, no dogs barking, nothing.

  “Where are we, and where is everyone?” Ben asked, turning to the dwarves.

  The swan boat passed under a great wooden bridge that spanned the river and turned toward a pier on the starboard side. Slowing and pivoting as it neared the pier, the boat glided into the wooden structure with a gentle bump and came to rest. The only noise in the still air was the sound of the river lapping at the sides of the boat.

  “We are inside the forbidden city,” said Hob. “All is lost.”


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