The thirteenth unicorn, p.21
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       The Thirteenth Unicorn, p.21

           W. D. Newman
 
CHAPTER 18

  AMBUSH

  Amos led Louise and the kids down to the lake, where the trail of Ben and the three dwarves ended at the shoreline.

  “They took a boat from here,” said Amos, pointing to the skid marks in the sand.

  “Where would they be going from here?” Casey asked.

  “This is Long Lake. It empties into a river that runs through the Twilight. There’s a small town near the Twilight, called River Town. They will probably spend the night there and leave for Dwarvenhall in the morning.”

  “Dwarvenhall? Is that the dwarven kingdom?” Joey asked.

  Amos nodded.

  “We will never catch them now,” said Louise, staring out across the vast lake.

  Amos picked up a smooth round stone and skipped it across the still waters. “Actually, Louise, we can.”

  “How? We don’t have a boat.”

  “We don’t need a boat. The river makes a great curving sweep westward and then swings back to the east before entering the Twilight. There are also many twists and turns along its path. If we travel overland, as the crow flies, we can make it to River Town before morning and catch them before they leave. It will mean a long night of travel, with no sleep and very little rest.”

  “Look!” Jenny cried, pointing up the shoreline.

  In the distance, heading in their direction, was another band of snakers.

  “Quickly,” Amos whispered, “go into the trees, they haven’t seen us yet.”

  The group quickly scrambled back into the forest and followed Amos, as he plunged through the pines. Soon, however, they had to stop for Louise to catch her breath.

  “That was a lot of snakers,” said Joey.

  “How did they escape from the tunnels?” Jenny asked.

  “Those were not the ones from the tunnels,” Amos answered. “That group coming down the shoreline was even larger than the one we trapped. I’ve never seen so many this far north and I’ve never seen this many traveling together, even down south where they dwell. We’ll have to really hump it to stay ahead of them. I am certain they will pick up our trail.”

  “Oh Amos,” Louise wept. “I am old and cannot possibly run all night. My legs ache now. Take the children and flee. I’ll go in a different direction and maybe I can draw some of them off your trail.”

  “No Grandma!” Casey cried. “We are not leaving without you!”

  “Yes you are!” Louise shouted. “You have Ben, Joey and Jenny to think of now.”

  “Casey is right Louise,” said Amos. “We are not leaving without you. But you shall not walk on this night.”

  The air about Amos shimmered faintly and a ripple ran through his body. The big man dropped down on his hands and knees and his wild hair and beard began to grow and meld together with the furs upon his back. In the twinkling of an eye, a monstrous bear, the size of a horse, was before them where Amos had just stood. The bear ambled over to Louise and crouched down beside her.

  “Get on, Grandma,” said Casey. “I told you, we were not leaving without you.”

  The kids helped Louise up onto the bear and handed her the pack Amos had been wearing. They could not find his axe and Amos did not wait for them to locate it. The bear set off through the trees at a brisk, but gentle pace that made it easy for Louise to stay mounted, and easy for the kids to keep up. They traveled this way for a couple of hours. When the sun began to set, they stopped to rest for a few minutes and to eat some of the food they had brought from the dwarves’ house. Amos changed back into a man and, while everyone was resting, he fashioned a saddle for Louise to use while riding. The saddle was a rope harness that wound around his chest and back, with loops under his arms and across his shoulders. Louise could sit up on his back and hold onto the ropes, or she could lie down on his back and twine her hands in the loops that would be on his side.

  “Okay, everyone. We’ll do two hour marches and ten minute breaks all night. That should allow us to reach River Town with plenty of time to spare. Joey, do you still have your watch?”

  Joey held up his arm and pushed the button to illuminate his indigo Timex.

  “Great. You will be the time keeper on our march tonight. Let’s go.”

  Amos transformed and Joey and Jenny secured the rope saddle, while Casey helped Louise mount. Once again, Amos led the strange procession, guiding them safely across the dark terrain, an old woman riding a giant bear with three children running at its side.

  It was on the fourth march when the ogre attacked. Everyone was exhausted, their senses dulled from endless hours of running, with no sleep and little rest. Even Amos was caught off guard when the ogre exploded from a thicket of gooseberry and prickly ash, in which it had been sleeping. The hideous monster lowered its shoulder and charged the bear, hitting it broadside and sending it sprawling down a short hill. Louise was thrown from Amos’s back and lay unconscious on the hillside. Jenny and Casey screamed as Joey grabbed them and yanked them backwards, away from the ogre.

  The ogre regarded them for a second. The three kids were unharmed, but they posed no threat. It would deal with them later. The old woman was probably dead, but she didn’t matter either - what harm could she do anyway. The bear was a different story. The bear had to be dealt with swiftly. The ogre started down the hillside to finish the bear when a thunderous roar ripped through the night air and shook loose stones from their perch on the hillside. The ogre paused, now uncertain, as fear crept up its spine and caused the course black hairs on the back of its neck to stand on end. After hearing the angry roar, it decided to leave the bear alone and snatch at least one of the children. It had turned around to go back to the kids, when the bear came hurtling up the hillside. The bear was massive now, the rage within the beast fueling its fury, strength, and size. But before the bear could reach the ogre, the monster grabbed its throat and toppled backwards into a lifeless heap, with a feathered shaft protruding from its neck. The bear slowed its charge and, with each step, shrank in size. By the time the bear reached the ogre, its transformation was complete.

  Amos took one look at the ogre and knew it was dead. The arrow that killed the beast looked to be elfin, but right now all he could think of was Louise and the children.

  “Louise,” he yelled. “Casey! Joey, Jenny, where are you?”

  “Amos!” Casey cried, running to the big man. “Where’s Grandma?”

  “Over here,” Jenny called. “We found her.”

  Amos and Casey ran over to the spot on the hillside where Jenny and Joey were crouched over a silent and still figure, lying upon the ground.

  “Oh Grandma,” Casey sobbed, falling to her knees and snatching up her Grandma’s hand. “Is she okay? Is she okay, Joey? Please tell me she’s okay.”

  Joey reached over and put his arm around Casey and squeezed her tight. “She’s alive. I think she is just unconscious.”

  Amos checked Louise over. She did not have any broken bones, but she did have a nasty cut on her forehead. “Joey’s right, she was just knocked unconscious when the ogre attacked. Find one of our packs and get me some water. No, stay here. Let me do it. Whatever killed that ogre is still out there.”

  “You didn’t kill it?” Casey asked.

  “No. The ogre was slain with an arrow. It looked to be an elfin arrow, but I’m not positive.”

  “It was indeed an elfin arrow,” a strange voice replied.

  Amos whirled around and the kids eased behind him. The strange voice belonged to a man who was coming down the hill toward them. In the darkness, they could only tell that the man was tall.

  “I am looking for Amos, Louise, Casey, Jenny, and Joey. And unless my eyes deceive me, I believe I have found them. Young Ben Alderman described you all very well.”

  “You’ve seen Ben?” Casey asked, stepping out from behind Amos. The news of her brother emboldened her and drove away some of her fears.

  “He is our guest along with Hob, Gob,
and Nob of Dwarvenhall. We have been sent to find you and bring you back safely. We must hurry though - there is evil afoot tonight.”

  “Yes, we must hurry,” Amos agreed, “but first, you know our names and we do not know yours. Nor do we know how you came to find us and that puzzles me greatly.”

  “I am called Gabriel,” said the elf with a bow of his head. “I sent one hunting party up the river, in case you came that way, and I led this party across land. We’ve been working a zig-zag pattern, hoping to pick up your tracks should you come this way. It is mostly luck that we stumbled upon you at all.”

  “What party are you talking about?” Joey asked peering around in the darkness.

  Gabriel turned and whistled and twelve more tall and silent figures materialized out of the darkness.

  “So you are an elf,” Amos marveled.

  “And you are a shape shifter,” Gabriel replied smiling. “These are strange times indeed.”

  “Are you taking us to Ben?” Jenny asked.

  “Yes, we are going to the Twilight. It’s a two hour march from here. Are you able to travel?”

  “We’re all okay, except Louise,” said Amos. “She is hurt and cannot travel.”

  “Then we shall carry her,” said Gabriel motioning for some of the other elves to come forward and assist.

  A stretcher was quickly fashioned from two long staffs and a cloak. Louise had regained consciousness, but did not object to being carried in the stretcher. One of the elves gave everyone a drink from a flask he was carrying at his side. Joey noticed that all of the elves carried a similar flask. The liquid was warm and tingled going down. Within a few minutes of drinking it, everyone felt their strength returning and their hopes rising.

  The next two hours went by quickly. The moon had set long ago, but a faint light in the eastern sky signaled dawn was near. When they arrived at the Twilight, the trees of the forest seemed to part for the elves and their guests, raising their branches and pulling back their roots to reveal a smooth and well traveled path. They soon emerged onto a sandy shoal and Amos, Louise, and the children were placed aboard a strange boat in the shape of a swan. Gabriel boarded the boat as well, but the other elves remained on shore and disappeared back into the forest. As soon as Gabriel was on board, the swan boat slowly backed into the dark river, moving on its own accord, and turned down stream, taking the party deeper into the Twilight.

  “You are safe now,” said Gabriel. “Be at ease and rest. You will see Ben shortly.”

  By the time the boat had reached the city of tents, dawn had broke. The sun had not peeked over the horizon yet, but the blackness of night had been chased away by the grays of early morning. The party aboard the boat marveled at the strange city. Louise was somewhat back to her old self and able to walk on her own. Amos was relieved to see her spirits and strength returning. After the boat docked at a pier, the party followed Gabriel through the city to the tent where Ben was staying. Gabriel pulled the flaps back and motioned for everyone to enter. Casey went in first and saw Ben sitting at a table with three dwarves. They were eating breakfast and engaged in an animate conversation. Ben looked completely relaxed and at home, as if this was just another normal day in the life of any seventh grader.

  “Ben!” Casey cried, running over to the table.

  Ben jumped up and ran to meet his sister. Casey threw her arms around him and began to sob.

  “I thought I’d never see you again. Thank God you are okay. You are okay aren’t you?”

  “Yes, I’m fine, Casey. I’m glad to see that all of you are fine too. I was worried to death that the snakers would get you.”

  Louise came over and gave Ben a big bear hug, then proceeded to give him a thorough inspection, while Amos stood behind her and grinned. When Louise had finished and was satisfied that Ben did not have any broken bones, scrapes, or bruises, Ben introduced everyone to Hob, Nob, and Gob. The three dwarves bowed low each time they were introduced and responded with “at your service” after every bow. As they were going through the introductions, Gabriel had another table and more food brought in. When they were finished with their greetings, everyone sat down to a tasty breakfast. While they were eating, Gabriel made to depart, but before he left the tent, he turned to address the guests.

  “Ben, your friends are weary from a long night of travel and must rest here until I return for them. I will wake them for the noon day meal and after that we will have much to discuss and many decisions to make. However, you and your dwarven friends may come with me if you wish. I know you have slept all night and if you feel you have rested enough, I will find a guide to show you around our city while the others rest.”

  Ben looked at the three dwarves. Gob and Nob nodded vigorously, indicating they did not want to spend the morning inside the tent. Hob, however, while trying not to seem rude to Gabriel, was once again scrunching up his eyebrows and shaking his head. He wiggled his finger to motion Ben over.

  “What has gotten into you?” Ben whispered.

  “I don’t think we should split up,” Hob whispered back. Or so he tried. His voice carried all over the tent and everyone heard him clearly. Gabriel smiled and waited patiently.

  “That’s silly, Hob, we are their guests.”

  “I just don’t trust them, Ben!”

  “Well, you sure didn’t mind eating their food,” Ben shot back.

  Hob reddened at the accusation but knew that it was true. “All right, I’ll go. But I still don’t like it.”

  Ben turned to his Grandma.

  “Go on, dear. We are all safe here and I am going to sleep like a log for the next several hours.”

  “Cool beans,” said Ben, turning back to Gabriel. “We’ll go.”

  *****

 

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