The thirteenth unicorn, p.25
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       The Thirteenth Unicorn, p.25

           W. D. Newman
 
CHAPTER 22

  DWARVENHALL

  The main street of Mountain Rest was nothing more than two large muddy ruts, worn into the weary ground by the passage of time and countless wagons. The town was not crowded, but the people that were out and about did pause at whatever they were doing to ogle at the giant hairy man in furs and the two dwarves riding with him. As they neared one particular weathered old building, two sinister looking men sitting on crates in front of the establishment arose and went inside. A sign over the door of the building swung gently in the breeze, its rusty hinges squeaking to passersby, its faded letters advertising cold ale and hot stew for the weary traveler.

  “I wonder what that was all about,” Amos muttered.

  “It can’t be good,” Gob replied. “This is a bad place. Dwarves no longer come here.” Looking over his shoulder, he could see several men peering through the dirty windows and watching as the wagon passed.

  “So I’ve heard,” said Amos. “There, up ahead. That’s the livery stable.”

  As the wagon rolled up to the front of the barn, Amos pulled back on the reins and brought the big draft horse to a stop. The barn was in a severe state of disrepair, battered by the elements like the bare and naked peaks that rose up behind the town. One of the double doors leading into the barn was gone and the other door hung askew from a solitary hinge of leather that looked as if it were hanging on a prayer, rather than a nail.

  Amos did not like the look of the place. For that matter, he did not like the look of the whole town. There was something wrong here. Something that wasn’t obvious, but something just below the surface and not all together hidden from sight either. A tension maybe? Or a danger? Or maybe both. It felt like seeing a poisonous snake lying in the grass, coiled and seemingly harmless, yet ready to strike in a flash. He called out from the wagon.

  “Hello!”

  A mammoth man, almost as large as Amos, appeared out of the gloomy recesses of the barn. He was bald, covered in soot, and was wiping his hands upon a long leather apron that hung down to his knees. He walked around to the side, then back to the front, looking the wagon and the horse over with a careful eye.

  “Where did you come by that horse and wagon, mister?”

  Nob noticed the man’s biceps were like tree trunks and that his forearms were scarred and corded with muscle, from long hours at the forge. He slowly loosened the axe in his belt.

  “We borrowed it,” Amos answered. “From a farmer just a short piece off the North Road. And now we wish to leave it here, to be returned to him with our thanks.”

  “That’s old man Miller’s horse and wagon. He’d never lend them out.”

  “Well, he did not exactly lend them to us,” Gob spoke up. “We paid him gold for the use of his horse and wagon. Good gold.”

  The blacksmith examined the two dwarves sitting beside Amos with narrow, venomous eyes then turned his attention back to Amos.

  “Well, which is it? Did you borrow the horse and wagon, or did you pay gold for the use of the horse and wagon? Or did you steal it? For all we know, you may have murdered old man Miller.”

  “Thieves!” someone shrieked behind them.

  “Murderers!” someone else cried.

  Gob and Nob spun around on the wagon seat. Behind them, a group of fifteen men were beginning to encircle them. They were all carrying crude weapons. Some had pitchforks, a couple of them had shovels. Most of them were carrying clubs. Amos locked eyes with the blacksmith and sat calmly, not speaking, not moving. The silence in the small town was complete. Or at least it seemed so to Gob and Nob, who had their hands firmly upon their axes. Somewhere in the distance, a dog barked and the blacksmith finally looked away. He wiped the sweat from his brow and retreated a few steps back to the barn. Amos spoke slowly and calmly.

  “As I said, we paid good gold for the use of the horse and wagon. We are leaving the horse and wagon with you so they may be returned to their owner, Mr. Miller. I had intended to pay you in gold likewise, to see that they are delivered safely and swiftly.”

  “We’ll take your gold anyway!” someone yelled.

  Gob and Nob rose as one and slid their axes from their belts, but Amos held his hand out and bade them to be still. Now that the mob was inching closer and getting ready to attack, the blacksmith regained his courage.

  “Let’s put them in the stocks,” he shouted. “At least until we can verify their story.”

  The crowd surged forward, eager for blood and easy gold. Eager for anything to channel their anger upon. Anger built up through years of scraping out a living in this dismal little mining town. Anger that was almost palpable. And as they pressed in around the sides of the wagon, Amos stood, and as he stood, the air about him shimmered and he appeared to grow taller. The mob faltered, unsure now, and began to slowly fall back. Then suddenly, Amos spread his arms, threw his head back and roared. The effect was just what he was hoping for. The color drained from the blacksmith's face as he stumbled backwards into the barn, crossing himself and chanting some childhood spell, seeking protection from the evil eye.

  “Witchcraft!” someone in the crowd screamed. The mob threw their weapons on the ground and fled down the street. The poor horse, however, was just as terrified as everyone else and sprang forward, tearing down the bumpy dirt road. Gob and Nob clung to the wagon with white knuckles, while Amos, still standing with arms outstretched, shimmered once again, then shrank back down to his normal size. As the horse thundered past the last building in town, Amos snatched Gob up under one arm, and Nob up under the other arm, and leapt from the speeding wagon. Amazingly, the big man kept his footing and safely deposited the two shaken dwarves on the ground with nothing wounded but their pride. The horse continued down the road, the wagon bouncing madly behind it, spurring it on even faster. As the road curved away from the mountains, the wagon came loose from the harness and flipped end over end, disintegrating into hundreds of shards and splinters. In a matter of seconds the wagon was reduced to a pile of rubble and the only sign of the horse was a plume of dust rising over the next hill, where the terrified creature was probably still running for its life.

  “I did not think a horse that big could run that fast,” Amos exclaimed.

  “Never again,” said Gob, shaking his head. “Never again.”

  “I agree,” said Nob. “No more horses for me either.”

  “That is well and good,” Amos replied, “for we have no need of a horse now. Let’s find our packs and get moving before that superstitious mob regains their confidence and comes looking for us.”

  “Yes,” Nob agreed. “That mob will get the whole town riled up. And yes, they will come after us I’m sure, but I fear it will be more than fifteen or twenty people that do come.”

  “Well, we are closer to the gate now anyway,” said Gob, looking up at the mountains before them. The West Gate, though still distant, was now visible on the slopes above. Nob started walking down the road where the horse had disappeared, and Gob fell in behind him.

  “Where are you two going?” Amos asked. “The gate is up there.”

  “There is a path that leads to the gate. It’s just a short piece down this road,” Gob called over his shoulder. “There will be many steps to climb and many switchbacks on the trail, but it will be much quicker than trying to go straight up the mountain.”

  Amos looked up at the mountains, studying the steep and rocky slopes leading up to the gate. He finally decided the dwarves knew best, this being their home, and hurried down the road to catch up with them.

  When they came upon the path, the entrance was flanked on both sides by the remains of two very old towers. The roof was missing from the tower on the left and it looked like a broken, jagged tooth protruding from the ground. The foundation was all that remained of the tower on the right, a ring of stones, with a tree and a bit of grass growing in the center. Gob looked upon the ruins with great sadness in his heart.

 
“When our fathers were young, these towers stood strong and proud. The elves helped build them, you know. This tower on our left was the guard house. There used to be a strong iron gate between the towers and the gate could only be opened from within the guard house. The tower on the right was a storage room and barracks. Even though these were built during peaceful times, we always kept them manned with at least one regiment.”

  “And now,” said Nob, “when it seems we are in perilous times indeed, they have fallen into ruin and stand deserted before the entrance to our very kingdom.”

  Amos smiled at the two dwarves. “Nothing is lost yet, my friends. How long from here to the gate?”

  “Not long now,” Gob replied. “Less than an hour.”

  Amos nodded, as the sun slipped down behind the tall peaks, taking the long shadows of evening with it. He glanced back down the road, toward town. All was quiet for now, but how long would that last? He shouldered his pack and started up the path.

  By the time they reached the end of the path, it was dark and the rain-washed skies were ablaze with stars. The West Gate, sloping back into the stone wall of the mountain, was at least fifteen feet tall and twenty feet across. It was built from timbers that were rubbed black with pitch and bound together with thick rusty bands of iron. No hinges were visible and it was impossible to tell where or how the gate opened.

  “What do we do now?” Amos asked. “Knock?”

  “No,” said Nob, “we just go right in. Follow me,”

  Nob walked up to the side of the mountain, to the left of the gate, and pressed his hand against the rock wall. A thin line emerged in the stone, outlining what appeared to be an arched doorway, that was large enough for Amos to walk through without stooping.

  “Why do we not use the gate?” Amos asked.

  “This is the gate,” Gob replied. “The West Gate.”

  “Then pray tell, what that is?” Amos asked, pointing over his shoulder at the hulking wood and iron gate set within the mountain wall.

  “That gate is a decoy,” Nob answered. “Back when Dwarvenhall and Mountain Rest had commerce, and there was no enmity between the dwarves and the men of Mountain Rest, the West Gate was a busy place indeed. However, we have always been suspicious of humans and their greed for gold, therefore only dwarves have ever been allowed upon this mountain. As a matter of fact, no man has ever crossed this threshold, nor even seen the true gate before us now. Bringing you through the gate is a great offense, but maybe it will add weight and legitimacy to the story we shall tell tonight, of the snaker invasion and the greater perils that lay before us.”

  “The decoy gate is meant to look imposing, like a gate of a great fortress,” Gob added. “You see, a great fortress conjures up images of great armies, great armies conjure up images of great battles, and great battles conjure up images of great destruction and death.”

  “And should anyone actually raise an army and attack our gate,” said Nob smiling, “they would only find the stone wall of the mountain behind the gate, and that wall, no army can raze.”

  Amos marveled at the two dwarves before him and began to regard them with a newfound respect and admiration. Gob gave the stone wall a gentle shove, and the door silently swung inward, revealing a dark tunnel leading down into the bowels of the mountain. Almost immediately, a drum began to echo and reverberate from within the depths of the mountain, a slow and steady beat that seemed to somehow throb with urgency.

  “What is that?” Amos asked.

  “That is an alarm,” Gob answered. “It is announcing that the West Gate has been opened. The West Gate has been closed for many years now. When it was closed for the final time, an alarm was fashioned so that it would sound whenever the gate was opened. Even though our two towers have fallen into ruin, and the path to our kingdom is no longer guarded, we do not sleep, nor are we lax in the defense of our kingdom. Even though this mountain, even this very gate before us, is no longer guarded, we have maintained an army within. Right now, that army, two thousand strong, is marshalling together and will soon speed this way.”

  “Two thousand to defend this one small door?” Amos asked. “I could defend this door against an entire army by myself!”

  “The door is small, but Dwarvenhall is expansive. There is a great chamber, less than a mile inside the mountain, that will hold six times that number. Whoever holds that chamber, has a decisive advantage.”

  “Should we go inside and meet them?” Gob asked, peering around at Amos and Nob.

  “No, I think we are better off to wait out here. If we go inside, they just might put an arrow or a spear into us before they recognize who we are. Especially, if they see Amos. Once they are satisfied that no army has invaded, they will send a small party up here to see what set the alarm off.”

  “Quite right Nob, quite right,” said Gob, pulling on his long braided beard and peering down the dark tunnel. “Good thinking too, very good thinking. As a matter of fact, it might be a good idea if Amos hides until we speak to whomever arrives to investigate.”

  “Why thank you Gob, that is most kind of you, and a good idea on your part too.”

  Amos rolled his eyes and marched over to the other side of the fake gate to sit and hide in the shadows. Gob and Nob sat down to the side of the real gate and began to talk excitedly about returning to their dwarven home. As they discussed the adventures that lay before them, the drums, down deep in the mountains, continued to beat their ominous warning.

  Boom… Boom… Boom…

  *****

 

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