The thirteenth unicorn, p.23
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       The Thirteenth Unicorn, p.23

           W. D. Newman
 
PARTURES

  “I will go with Gob and Nob,” said Amos. “If their mission fails, all is lost.”

  “That completes two parties,” Marcus responded, “but we need yet a third. Someone must go to Stone Dog and retrieve the unicorn horns that the witch has already collected. This will be our safeguard, should she escape this final time.”

  “But no one can go to Stone Dog,” said Louise. “You said yourself that the Blight is death to all elves and dwarves.” Then understanding dawned in her eyes and Marcus nodded slowly.

  “Yes, Louise, because of the Blight, you and your companions are the only ones that can enter Stone Dog.”

  Feeling very much defeated and resigned to her fate, Louise asked, “How will we get there and how will we get in?”

  “You will have to ride. If you leave tonight and ride all night, you can make it to the witch’s castle by noon tomorrow.”

  “Ride? Ride what, horses? I’m sixty-eight years old! I can’t ride a horse all night!”

  Marcus smiled. “You and your companions will not go alone. Jonah and three other elves will accompany you as close to the castle as they are able. They will ride with you and make sure that you do not fall. When you get to the castle, you will find the gates open. In the center of the castle stands a lone tower and the unicorn horns will probably be located in the top room of this tower. If the tower is locked, one of the children may be able to climb the walls and enter through a window. We will send ropes along with you. If there is no access to a window, then you will have to use your wits and figure out another way in.”

  “That’s it? Just use our wits and figure out another way in?”

  “I’m afraid so. But we know you are a resourceful person. It is rumored among the elves in the Twilight that you have faced the witch before and lived. Is this true?”

  Louise nervously glanced at Ben, but he was speaking with Hob and Gabriel and had not heard. She turned back to Marcus. “I’ll go get the children and let them know what’s happening.”

  Marcus nodded, then addressed everyone in a loud voice. “When darkness falls, Amos, Gob, and Nob will board one of the swan boats. Once they are out of the Twilight, they are beyond our help and must choose their own path to return to Dwarvenhall. Gabriel, Hob, and Ben will use the trading boat that Gabriel has given to the dwarves. The river will take them all the way to the Great Oak Forest. Louise, Casey, Joey and Jenny will also depart at dusk on horseback for the witch’s castle. I am sending four of our best horses and riders to accompany them and aid them on their mission.”

  After all of the plans had been finalized, the elves provisioned two boats with supplies for each mission. The boat that Hob, Gabriel, and Ben were taking had been painted black. It was now the same color as the swan boat that Amos, Nob, and Gob were going to use. Hob understood the necessity of painting the boat black. They needed to leave the Twilight under the cover of darkness, in order to get out undetected. Still, he did not like his boat being painted without his permission and he made a mental note to have it re-painted as soon as these campaigns were over. Maybe red. Ruby red. He liked rubies. He revealed his plans to Gob and Nob and before long the three dwarves were in a heated discussion over what color to paint the boat. They finally called a truce and agreed to put the boat back to its original color.

  Gabriel and Amos spent the day roaming through the woods. While deep in the heart of the Twilight, it was hard to imagine that the place was under attack. Two squirrels playfully chased each other round and round the smooth grey trunk of one of those strange trees that grew here. A rabbit nibbled at the tender green clover growing in one of the many little glades found within the forest. Overhead, a mockingbird noisily scolded them for getting too close to her nest, while nearby, tiny yellow butterflies flitted from flower to flower in a field of blue chicory. Amos breathed it all in. The peace. The serenity.

  Louise and the kids gathered inside their tent to spend their remaining hours with one another. For the most part, everyone was quiet, content just to be together. The only time that someone spoke was when the silence finally became unbearable and then it was only idle chatter. Jenny stated that their mom was probably worried sick about them and Joey had to point out that when they went back home, they would be going back to the same time they left. Louise commented that she was glad she had watered and fed the goats before she left. Then she remembered what Joey had pointed out to Jenny earlier. It was kind of like going though the house during a power outage and trying to turn on the lights. You know the power is out and that the lights won’t work, but you just automatically hit that light switch as soon as you walk into a dark room.

  Night came swiftly and it was soon time to go. Ben stood on the pier and watched as Amos, Gob, and Nob drifted out into the current and disappeared down the river, into the darkness. Louise and Casey hugged Ben tightly. Joey shook his hand and then Jenny kissed him very quickly upon his lips. With the heat rising in his cheeks, Ben stammered out a goodbye and stepped into the boat where Hob and Gabriel were waiting. Jonah pushed the boat off the shore and Gabriel, sitting at the prow with an oar in his hands, paddled them out into the center of the river where the current picked them up and ushered them out of the city of tents.

  Once Ben was out of sight, Jonah and three other elves appeared with horses in tow. The horses were identical, each one black as midnight, tall and graceful with broad chests, long legs, and powerful hips that promised speed. After brief introductions, Louise was placed behind Jonah and each one of the children behind one of the other elves. The plan was simple. They would ride to the edge of the forest that was under the least amount of attack; then an advance guard of elves would pour out of the forest from two points and engage the snakers in hand-to-hand combat. Once the battle was under way, the riders would peal out of the forest, between the two skirmishes, and ride like the wind across the open plain. If things went as planned, they would escape unnoticed.

  As they rode deeper into the forest, Louise marveled at how the trees raised their limbs and pulled their roots back to provide a clear and smooth trail for the riders to travel upon. They rode in silence for an hour and when they finally reached the perimeter of the forest, they found it eerily calm and quiet, the attacks having temporarily ceased. However, within a few short minutes, the battle cries of two-hundred elves rang forth from points both north and south of their position.

  “Hold on tightly,” Jonah commanded. “On three. One.”

  The horses began to prance, chomping at the bits.

  “Two.”

  The tree limbs about them began to tremble.

  “Three!”

  In an explosion of leaves, an opening appeared in the trees before them. The riders blasted forth from the forest, into the night and as the hoof beats of the horses faded into the distance, the trees began to shift and entwine their limbs, closing the opening in the forest wall.

  Back on the river, Ben and his party had left the tent city and had entered the trees again. With the black and gnarled branches overhead, the darkness was complete. However, the river carried them unerringly through the forest and, the closer they came to the end of the Twilight, the more menacing the forest appeared. A thick tension and a sense of foreboding hung heavily in the air and caused the hairs on the back of Ben’s neck to stand on end. A faint light up ahead signaled the river’s exit from the forest and the sound of fighting, though muffled, filled the air. Gabriel motioned for everyone to get down as low as possible in the boat and then pulled a large, thick woolen blanket over on top of them. The elves mounted attacks upon the snakers on both sides of the river, thus drawing their attention away from the river and allowing the boats to slide past unnoticed. Still, everyone lay silent under the blanket for the next hour, letting the river carry them further and further away from danger. Finally, Gabriel threw the blanket off.

  “You two get some sleep. We will travel the rest of the night upon th
e river and we will not see the Great Oak Forest until early morning.”

  “What about Amos, Gob, and Nob?” Ben asked.

  “They are safely ahead of us,” Gabriel answered turning and staring forward into the darkness. “I can see them now. I do not know where they will leave the river, but they will have to leave it in the next hour or so to make for Dwarvenhall.”

  Ben and Hob peered into the darkness ahead, trying to catch a glimpse of their companions, but the night sky was clouded and the starlight that did manage to seep through lit nothing more than a few feet past the prow of the boat. Finally, the two gave up trying to espy their companions and lay down upon the thick blanket they had hid under earlier. The rocking of the boat and the lullaby song of the river, soon put them soundly to sleep.

  When dawn broke, the new day welcomed the party to the Great Oak Forest with a cold and steady drizzle. Fortunately, the elves had equipped everyone with light cloaks that kept out the wind and rain and were surprisingly warm as well. Not long after entering the forest, Gabriel found a sandy beach in the bend of the river to put ashore.

  “Luck is with us - I feel the unicorn is near. We must go on foot from here.”

  “Can you sense the witch?” asked Hob.

  “I cannot,” Gabriel answered. “We must be on our guard at all times and go forward as quietly as possible. The witch travels with her shadow cat and that will have to be dealt with first. Help me pull the boat out of the water.”

  Ben and Hob jumped out of the boat and helped Gabriel pull it up onto the beach. After unloading their packs, they carried the boat into the forest and placed it in a shallow depression between two trees. Hob began to scavenge dead tree limbs, while Ben raked up leaves from the forest floor. While they were busy disguising the boat, Gabriel returned to the river bank to erase their tracks. He used a fistful of cattails to brush out the tracks and when he was finished, there was no longer any sign of their passing, not even to the eye of an experienced tracker. Satisfied that their tracks were well covered, he returned to find Ben and Hob putting the finishing touches on concealing the boat.

  “An excellent job!” Gabriel remarked. The boat was practically invisible now. “I don’t think I could have done it any better.”

  Hob beamed. “We dwarves are rather talented at hiding things, you know,” he crowed.

  “So I see. I just hope we can find it when we return.”

  “Don’t worry about that. Finding things is another one of our many talents.”

  “Very well then. Are we ready to leave?”

  “I have one quick question,” Ben asked as he shook his last fistful of leaves over the sticks, which covered the top of the boat. “What is a shadow cat?”

  “A shadow cat,” Gabriel answered, “is not like any cat you have ever seen or imagined. It is a creature from the Dark Lands.”

  “Pluton?”

  “No, not Pluton. The Dark Lands are the realm of the evil dead. Let us not speak of that place now.”

  Hob shivered and quickly looked around, half expecting to see the dead cat’s shadow slinking between trees.

  “What makes this shadow cat so dangerous?” Ben asked, eyeing Hob and checking the forest around him. Now, he was feeling jumpy.

  “The shadow cat travels in our world as a shadow, even on the darkest of nights. However, it is very real and a scratch or bite from the creature is usually fatal.”

  “How do we fight it? Can we even see it?”

  “You can see it when it moves,” said Hob, still searching the trees around him. “A shadow across the ground or upon a tree or shrub. It’s almost like the shadow of a great bird flying over on a sunny day or a small, fast moving cloud. You can also see it’s eyes when it is looking at you. The eyes of a shadow cat burn red with the fires of the Dark Lands.”

  “The shadow cat must take on a solid form to attack you though,” Gabriel continued. “It is then when it is most vulnerable and may be killed by any one of our weapons. So, I repeat, be on your guard at all times. Are we ready?”

  “One more question,” asked Ben, looking down and fingering the knife at his side. “How am I to defeat the witch? I cannot even defend myself against kids my own age, so how am I supposed to beat some powerful witch?”

  Gabriel studied Ben for a moment, then smiled. “The Keeper did not say that you had to defeat the witch, Ben. He only said that you are there when the witch is defeated. The three of us will defeat the witch together.”

  Ben felt a great weight lift from his shoulders. “Then I’m ready.”

  “So am I,” Hob nodded, smacking the axe handle in his thick hands.

  “Follow me then,” said Gabriel, “and stay alert.”

  The Great Oak Forest was filled with all kinds of oaks. There were white oaks, red oaks, live oaks, and water oaks. The strangest thing, however, was that there were no young trees. All the trees in the forest were giants, with trunks so large that Gabriel, Ben, and Hob could not join hands and reach around any of them. Although there was one continuous canopy of leaves high above their heads, the trunks of these giant trees were not crowded together, but rather spaced thirty to forty feet apart.

  “This rain is a blessing,” said Gabriel. “It dampens the leaves on the ground and helps mask our movements.”

  “It will also make it difficult for the shadow cat to smell us,” Hob added.

  The land inside the forest was mostly flat, with only a few rolling hills. Ben and Hob were able to follow Gabriel quietly and with ease. They walked in silence for most of the day, not speaking, straining their ears for any sound and searching every tree for any shadows. As evening approached, Ben was getting ready to ask Gabriel exactly what he meant when he said the unicorn was near. Gabriel, however, held up his hand and motioned for them to stop, and then pointed ahead to something moving between the trees. In the distance, through the thick grey trunks of the forest, Ben spotted a glimpse of white and then it was gone.

  “Was that the unicorn?” Ben mouthed.

  Gabriel nodded and motioned for Ben and Hob to follow once again. This time the elf moved slowly and ever so quietly. Take a step and pause. Look. Listen. Take two steps. Pause. Look. Listen. They moved like this for what seemed like hours, when Gabriel finally raised his hand again and directed everyone behind a tree. Holding his finger to his lips, he pointed around the tree and then the three of them crept silently around the massive trunk. Ben spotted the unicorn immediately. It was no more than a hundred yards away, pawing the ground in search of some unknown delicacy among the leaves. The unicorn was just like Ben imagined it would be. The horse was tall and powerful with a broad chest and proud neck that sported a flowing mane of the purest white. The horn was spiraled and had a faint shimmer about it. As a matter of fact, the entire creature had a faint shimmer about it.

  “It’s beautiful,” Ben whispered.

  “Indeed,” Gabriel replied quietly.

  “Is the witch near?” Hob asked. The dwarf’s attempt at a whisper made Ben and Gabriel cringe.

  “I do not know,” Gabriel answered, his eyes intent upon the unicorn.

  “Well what are we to do now?” Hob asked.

  The unicorn threw up its head, it’s ears at sudden attention, and snorted. Ben, Hob, and Gabriel froze. The unicorn looked in their direction for several minutes, and snorted a couple of more times, before returning its attention to whatever lay beneath the leaves. Gabriel turned to Hob.

  “Dear friend, you must remain quiet. Your whisper is almost a shout. We are going to guard the unicorn. We know the witch is coming for it. We need to get closer though so please, be quiet as possible. Once we leave this position we must not talk anymore, okay?”

  Hob nodded. Ben, however, had been watching the unicorn and from the corner of his eye had seen a flash of movement to the right. There it was again. A shadow flitted across a tree trunk and was gone. Ben tugged on Gabriel’s cloak and pointed.
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  “I saw a shadow moving over there,” he whispered, pointing to the right of the unicorn.

  Gabriel drew an arrow and nocked it. “Are you certain?”

  “Yes, positive. I saw it twice.”

  “Draw your weapon. Let’s move forward now.”

  Ben drew the knife from his sheath. Hob had both hands upon his axe and Gabriel had his arrow ready to fly. Gabriel took one step and the unicorn’s head shot up. Once again everyone froze. However, this time the unicorn was not looking at them, but was looking into the forest away from them. Ben saw the shadow first. It was just as Hob described it, like the shadow of a huge bird racing across the ground. It was heading straight for the unicorn. Gabriel and Hob spotted it at the same time and began running toward the unicorn, trying to get there before the shadow cat. Ben tried to keep up, but quickly fell behind. He paused a moment and bent over to catch his breath, fumbling for the inhaler in his pocket. Gabriel was halfway to the unicorn, drawing his bow back as he ran. Hob was several yards behind him with his axe poised over his head. Ben stood and brought the inhaler to his lips, but a clawed hand grabbed him by the hair on his head and yanked him backwards into an embrace of long thin arms, that were strong as steel and cold as a dark December night. As his lungs began to tighten, Ben mustered all of the strength within his body and screamed. Then, drowning him out with a roar that reverberated through the forest and shook the mighty trees all around them, the unicorn screamed too.

  *****

 
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