The thirteenth unicorn, p.24
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       The Thirteenth Unicorn, p.24

           W. D. Newman


  Amos, Nob, and Gob were all rather surprised at how easy it was for them to slip out of the Twilight, undetected by any snakers. After throwing off their blanket, Amos spotted Ben, Hob, and Gabriel in the boat behind them, but the two dwarves could not see their companions in the darkness no matter how hard they tried and this frustrated them to no end.

  “How is it that you can see what we cannot?” Nob asked, tugging on his beard and peering over the stern.

  “Yes,” said Gob, turning to Amos and planting his fists upon his hips. “We dwarves have exceptional night vision, yet we cannot even make out the boat in this darkness. I believe there is more to you, Amos, than meets the eye.”

  Amos chuckled. “That would be true, my friends. And I guess you must know the truth about me, if we are to journey on this perilous mission together.”

  Amos told the dwarves he was a shape shifter and answered all of their questions (which were not few). This took the better part of an hour. When the dwarves’ curiosity seemed to be satisfied, everyone began looking for a place to put ashore. They found a reedy place, near the shoreline, where the water was shallow and still. Amos paddled into the reeds and stepped out of the boat into the cattails. He could not get the swan boat close to the land, and he did not want to take a chance searching for a better landing area, so he carried the dwarves upon his back, one at a time, to dry ground. After depositing them safely on the shore, he returned for their gear and bundled it together in the large blanket they had hidden under from the snakers. Pulling the corners together and tossing the bulging sack across his shoulder, he gave the swan boat a gentle push, sending it out of the reeds and back into the open river. The swan boat drifted lazily out toward the center, until the current caught it and spun it around. Then, instead of floating downstream with the current, the boat neatly parted the oncoming water and began its return trip home. Amos shook his head in wonder and waded ashore with the gear, where he found Gob and Nob in some kind of quiet, yet heated debate.

  “I tell you, North is that way,” said Gob, pointing ahead and diagonally away from the river.

  “And I tell you, the river has been curving to our left and North is that way,” Nob replied, pointing back and diagonally away from the river. “If these blasted clouds would only lift for a moment!”

  “You are both wrong,” said Amos, unpacking the blanket. “The river has been curving to our left, but not as much as you suspect. North is that way.” Amos pointed straight out, away from the river.

  “Are you positive?” Gob asked.

  “I am positive,” Amos replied.

  “Then we had best get moving,” Nob added. “We somehow have to cram four days marching into three. And that’s not allowing for any time to raise an army.”

  The three shouldered their packs and set off across the field at a brisk trot. Fortunately, they were out of the trees and on flat terrain because the night was indeed dark. However, they did make excellent time and by dawn they had covered many miles.

  As day broke, the heavy clouds began depositing their load in the form of a dreary mist. Amos, Gob, and Nob wore the same elfin cloaks as Ben, Hob, and Gabriel, but the cloaks did nothing to prevent the weather from dampening their spirits. In addition to the low clouds, a thick mist hung over the ground and prevented them from seeing the mountains. Amos seemed sure of their direction though and plodded on tirelessly. Finally, Nob stopped and threw his pack on the ground.

  “I can’t go any further,” he panted. “I can march all day and all night, but not on an empty stomach.”

  “Me either,” Gob added, plopping his pack down beside Nob’s. “Right now I am hungry enough to eat dirt.”

  “What about rocks?” Nob asked.

  “What about them?” Gob shot back.

  “Are you hungry enough to eat rocks?”

  “Hmmm. What kind of rocks?”

  “Shale stone. No, slate. No, no, I got it. Granite! Are you hungry enough to eat granite?”

  “Well now that you mention it, if someone gave me a big plate of dirt and a big granite rock, the first thing I would do is take the granite rock and beat you in the head with it for asking stupid questions. Then I’d eat the dirt.”

  Amos chuckled at the two dwarves, while he rummaged around in his pack. “We will not have to eat dirt tonight. Or rocks either.” He pulled out some white stag jerky and apples and tossed them to the dwarves. “Eat this. Shoulder your packs too. We can eat while we walk.”

  “Hey, what’s that?” asked Nob.

  “What’s what?” Gob mumbled, around a mouthful of apple.

  “That noise,” said Amos. “Shhh.”

  In the distance, although they could not tell how far away it was, for this mist did play tricks with the sounds, they could hear what sounded like the steady ring of a hammer on steel.

  “Ah yes, I hear it now,” said Gob. “Probably a farm house nearby.”

  “Come,” said Amos. “It sounds like it’s in the direction we’re traveling. Let’s find it and see if they have any horses.”

  “We are not riding horses!” Gob and Nob exclaimed at the same time.

  “Well, maybe the farmer has a wagon,” Amos replied curtly.

  Shouldering their packs, munching apples and chewing jerky, they made their way through the thick mists until they came to a cedar rail fence. The fence surrounded a small stone house with a thatch roof. Across the front yard from the house, stood a large barn made of logs and split wood shingles. The tall double doors to the barn were open wide and the warm yellow light of a lantern sliced through the gray morning mist, spilling out into the barn yard. The hammering noise came from within. Amos motioned for the two dwarves to follow him and they crept silently down to the barn and peered inside.

  The barn had two stalls on the right side and a loft up above them. The loft was overflowing with sweet smelling timothy and alfalfa hay. All kinds of farming tools were hanging from the rafters and a crude table stood against the rear wall of the barn, where an old man was beating a plowshare with a hammer upon an anvil. Amos stepped into the barn and called out to him.

  “Hello there.”

  The man spun around, plowshare in one hand, hammer in the other. Amos could see right away that he had frightened him.

  “Who are you? What do you want?” The old man wheezed, his voice high with fright. “What are you doing trespassing on my property?”

  Amos held his arms out to his side, his palms open. “We mean you no harm, sir. We only wish to borrow your horse and wagon. We’d gladly pay you.”

  “We?” the old man croaked. “How many more are out there?”

  “Just a couple of my friends,” Amos answered. “I asked them to wait outside so that we would not startle you.”

  “Come out where I can see you,” the old man cried. “You’ve got no business sneaking about on my property!”

  Gob and Nob walked into the barn, materializing out of the mists like two grim specters. The old man saw the dwarves and the blood drained from his face. He dropped the hammer and plowshare and fell to his knees with his hands and face upon the ground.

  “Take what you want, but I beg you leave me be. I am an old man, too old to work the mines. I wouldn’t even survive the trip. Please, take anything, but have mercy on me.”

  “What’s he talking about?” Gob asked, bewildered.

  “He thinks we are bloody gnomes!” said Nob indignantly.

  “Gnomes!” Gob steamed. “He’ll wish we were gnomes when I finish with him.”

  Amos snagged Gob by the hood of his cloak and held him back. The old man was truly terrified now, as the dwarf struggled to get at him. Amos dragged Gob back outside and Nob followed.

  “You two wait here. There’s a wagon in the back corner of that barn, if you haven’t noticed, and the loft is full of fresh hay. That means there is a horse, or a mule, or an ox on this farm. Let him th
ink you are gnomes for now. This may work for our benefit.”

  Amos went back into the barn and closed the doors behind him. Gob was still fuming over being mistaken for a gnome.

  “Can you believe he thought we were gnomes?”

  “It must be these blasted elfin cloaks. We sure don’t look like proper dwarves with these on.”

  “They do keep us dry and rather warm, though. Maybe it’s the light.”

  “Or it could be this infernal mist.”

  The two dwarves were going on like this when the barn doors flew open and Amos came out driving a small buckboard wagon that was pulled by a draft horse whose head was as long as the dwarves were tall. The dwarves gave the horse a wide berth as they approached the buckboard and they boarded the wagon with trepidation.

  “Where did the horse come from?” Gob asked. “I did not see a horse inside the barn! You didn’t shape-shift that old man into a horse did you?”

  “Good heavens no, I can’t do that!”

  “Well it would serve him right if you could! Thinking we were gnomes and all!”

  “So where did the horse come from?” Nob asked, repeating Gobs question. “And what manner of horse is this? He looks like a monster!”

  “Both of the stalls opened up into a paddock on the other side of the barn. The horse was outside in the paddock.”

  “Is he an obedient creature?” asked Gob. “We can make it on foot if we really hurry.”

  “He is a fine horse,” Amos responded. “He is young and powerful and, although he may not win any races with his speed, he can maintain a brisk trot for several hours and have us to Mountain Rest by late afternoon. But before we depart, I need to leave payment for the animal and the wagon.”

  “Ah, so he is selling this horse and wagon then. Have you settled on a price?” asked Gob, raising his bushy eyebrows and stroking his beard. Dwarves, by their very nature, love to haggle. Gob was now looking at the horse with an appraising eye. He wanted to crawl down from the buckboard and kick the wagon wheels too.

  “No, he is not selling,” Amos answered. “The old man is convinced you are gnomes and he was quite happy for me to take the horse and wagon and not him.”

  “Then why do you need to make payment?”

  “Because this horse and wagon are that poor man’s livelyhood. I intend that he gets them back too, but if he does not then he needs to be able to replace them.”

  Nob pulled a small pouch from beneath his cloak and handed it to Amos. Amos weighed the sack in his hand then tossed it over the wagon, onto the ground in front of the barn doors. He then clucked to the big horse and they were off, with Gob and Nob staring wistfully at the small sack of gold lying in the dirt.

  Finally, the dwarves turned around to see where Amos was taking them.

  “Where are we going?” Nob ventured. “We cannot go overland and across country on this wagon. Not all the way to the mountains.”

  “This lane we travel on,” said Amos, “will soon join the North Road, which goes by Mountain Rest. The farmer said the horse knows the way to Mountain Rest and will take us there if we give him the rein. Are either of you familiar with the town?”

  “Mountain Rest is a mining town,” Gob replied. “The dwarven mines extend east from the West Gate of Dwarvenhall. The humans mine everything west of there. It is a small and dirty town - a mean town. No dwarves venture there anymore.”

  “How far is the West Gate from Mountain Rest?”

  “An hour’s march by foot. The horse cannot go where we must go, once we leave the town.”

  Suddenly, the lane curved to the left and they were upon the North road. The mist had lifted somewhat and the drizzle finally ceased. Although they could still not see the mountains, they could now see the road stretching out before them, a wide brown ribbon of hard packed dirt, slicing neatly through the tall green grass.

  “I intend to leave the horse and wagon at the livery, with instructions to be returned to the owner. We’ll leave from the livery and head straight to the West Gate,” said Amos.

  “At this pace, we can make the West Gate by nightfall,” said Gob.

  “How long will it take to assemble the army?”

  “Oh, we can be marching back to the Twilight by dawn,” Nob smiled. “With two thousand strong.”

  “Then we might just make it after all,” Amos marveled.

  The rest of the day passed by uneventfully. They met only one other wagon on the road and a couple of riders. By late afternoon, the mist had completely lifted. Ragged patches of blue sky began to appear and, every now and then, a beam of sunshine escaped through the dissipating clouds. By evening time, the sky was completely clear and the sun was turning the western horizon a brilliant mixture of oranges and reds.

  “Turn there,” said Gob, pointing at a small trail up ahead.

  The trail, barely wide enough for the wagon, forked off to the left and wound gently uphill, through trees still dripping from the recent rains. At the crest of the hill, Amos pulled back on the reins and brought the wagon to a halt. Seemingly right in front of them, yet actually several miles away, the Iron Bone Mountains reared up stark and bare against the evening sky.

  “There’s the West Gate,” said Nob, “that dark spot between those two peaks.”

  “And there’s Mountain Rest,” said Amos.

  Down at the foot of the hill, in the small valley below, lay the mining town of Mountain Rest. The town was small and dirty and seemed completely devoid of any color except gray. Smoke curled from several chimneys, adding to the already dismal atmosphere that hung over the town.

  “Let’s get in and out of the town as quickly as possible,” said Gob.

  “Yes, quickly as possible,” Nob agreed.

  Amos clucked to the horse and the wagon began its slow descent down into the valley.



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