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Chapter 14: Outnumbered

Sheila grabbed frantically for her flashlight. If only there was a little strength left in the batteries…

It flickered on for an instant, then died again. But that brief flash of light was just enough for the two warriors to see:
“Myno! You’re all right!”
“Of course I am,” she said gruffly. “Takes more than a few stupid soldiers to put an end to me. No need to get emotional about it.”
But she gave Sheila and Illyria a quick, fierce hug. “Let’s get out of here. This neighborhood isn’t going to be safe much longer.”
They followed her in silence, stumbling in the darkness, through a tangle of narrow, foul-smelling alleyways. Once Sheila saw red eyes flash and heard small bodies scurry away. Rats, she told herself, only a bunch of scared rats. She didn’t blame them for being scared. It was spooky here, in all this close, smelly darkness.
Myno and Illyria, apparently unafraid, were moving on.
“Hey, wait for me!” Sheila whispered.
Terrified that she would be left behind, she hurried after their forms, slipping and falling into a puddle of what she hoped was only water.
“Oh, ugh!”
However prettily Campora might shine in the sunlight, Sheila thought wryly, Dynasian had a thing or two to learn about some matters. Such as drains!
The two women ahead of her stopped, so suddenly that Sheila, in her rush to keep up, nearly crashed into them.
“Here we are,” whispered Myno in triumph. “The main wall isn’t too far from here, and we should be able to slip out without any-“Wait, Myno.” Illyria’s voice was grim. “We came to Campora for a purpose. I’m not leaving just yet.”
“But Dynasian’s whole army is going to be out looking for you!”
“Campora is a big maze of a city. They won’t find us that quickly. And in the meantime . . . Myno, take us down to the harbor.”
“Oh, come now, Illyria! You can’t be expecting us to rescue the unicorns all by ourselves!”
“What choice have we?” asked Illyria quietly. “If we do nothing, the unicorns are as good as dead, and the Dark Gods will rise. We can, at least, try to prevent that.”
Myno sighed. “I’ve been following you all these months. I’ve seen you risk your neck maybe a hundred times. But this has got to be the most harebrained stunt you’ve ever-“
“Do you want to leave?”
“Hey, no, I never said that! It’s just . . . I mean…”
Myno muttered something hot-tempered under her breath. “I guess I’m just as harebrained as you two,” she said reluctantly. “But I don’t like the idea of the unicorns being slaughtered, either. So be it. Come on. Follow me.”
Myno seemed to know every alley, every passage, every hole in the wall in all of Campora. Sheila and Illyria struggled on in her wake as best they could.
At least the night’s not so dark anymore, thought Sheila hopefully. It must be nearly morning.
Wait a minute. If it was nearly morning, that meant they didn’t have much time left to save the unicorns!
Suddenly a shrill blare of trumpets split the silence.
“That’s got to be the prison alarm!” gasped Sheila. “They know we’ve escaped!”
“They’ll never find us.” Myno sounded as calm as could be. “We’re nearly at the harbor already, and-“
“By all the gods!” gasped Illyria. “Look at that!”
At first glance Sheila thought it was just a troupe of entertainers, clad in so many wild rags that the phrase “raggle-taggle-gypsies-o” flashed through her mind. With them were their horses-No! Those were unicorns-No. Those were only horses, with silly, handmade cones tied onto their foreheads to make them look like unicorns, and-Wait a minute! That handsome boy who was grinning at her ...
“Illyria! That’s Darian, and-and Pelu, and all the rest!” Sheila’s heart was pounding! She was a little surprised to see how glad she was to see Darian. Illyria was already hurrying forward.
“Sheila!” crowed Darian joyfully. “Where did-“
“What are you doing here?” Illyria interrupted. “What are any of you doing here? I gave you an order-“
“We know,” said Pelu gently. “But when you hear what happened, I think you’ll understand.”
Sheila looked around nervously, half expecting to see armed guards rushing toward them. “I’m sure it’s going to be a fascinating story. But couldn’t we find a safer place to talk?”
“Ah. Those alarm trumpets we heard were for you.”
“They were,” Myno said shortly. Pelu glanced back at Darian and Dian and the rest of her wildly colorful companions, and grinned. “What better place to hide someone than right in the most conspicuous of places?” She handed Sheila, Illyria, and Myno three ragged, many-colored cloaks. “There, now you look like proper members of the Marvelous Magical Unicorn Troupe!”
“Pelu.” Illyria’s voice held a note of warning in it. “Your story?”
“Well, we were dividing our troop up, as you’d ordered, when suddenly it happened . ..” and PeIu explained how the eagles had forced them to change their plans.
“We got these rags from a good-natured merchant for whom we performed last night, outside the city gates.” Dian explained.
Darian added with a hint of wounded pride, “We thought we were performing a drama. He thought we were doing a comedy! So much for our dreams of acting glory! At any rate, as soon as the gates were opened just before dawn, we came in with everyone else.”
Illyria gave a soft laugh. “Now, that is a truly amazing story! If we all get out of this alive, I do think we had better do some investigating of certain more-than-mere-birds eagles.” She glanced up at the rapidly brightening sky. “But we haven’t got much time to waste.”
Quickly she told the others of Dynasian’s plans to send the captive unicorn herd to King Kumuru for sacrifice. As she finished her tale, there were gasps of horror from her listeners.
“How dare he!”
“Sacrifice unicorns to the Dark Gods-never!”
“We can’t let Dynasian get away with that!” cried Darian.
“And we won’t.” Illyria’s voice was strong with determination. “Dynasian will surely have his men begin loading the unicorns aboard ship just about now... .” She paused, smiling. “Perhaps we ought to let him finish the job.”
“What!” burst out Myno. “You mean, we came all this way just to let that tyrant’s men up and sail away with-“
“Did I say that?” asked Illyria. “But tell me this: Have any of you had a chance to actually see the ship?”
Darian nodded. “It’s a big old thing, with oars and sails. Big enough to hold all the unicorns, I guess, with room left over.”
Illyria nodded thoughtfully. “Nanine, you once told me you knew how to sail,”
The princess nodded. “My land touches the sea, you know. And even those of royal blood are taught to master the way of ships and sails.” She added dryly, “Even those who have the misfortune to have been born female.”
“I see.” Illyria turned to her brother. “Darian, I have a task for you. It . . . may be dangerous.”
The boy straightened proudly. “I’m not afraid! What is it? Do you want me to fight somebody? Challenge the guards and-“
“I want you to take our unicorn friends here down to the dock where the others are being loaded.”
His face fell. “That’s all?”
“That’s enough! You’re going to have to convince the guards that you found these unicorns wandering in the city, and brought them to the ship out of loyalty to the emperor.” She glanced severely at her brother. “Nothing more than that. No heroics, is that understood?”
“Yes, sure, but . . . do you really want Quiet Storm and all the rest on that ship?”
“I do,” said Illyria, smiling faintly. “I do, indeed. My friends, I must say I’m glad you’re here. Now let’s go save those unicorns!”
The others cheered.
“Fine,” muttered Myno. “Instead of three fools rushing off to disaster, we’ve got seven!”
Only Sheila overheard her. But she was glad to see that Myno, for all her complaining, moved just as eagerly as everybody else.
The ship on which the captive unicorns were to sail was a huge thing, just as Darian had said, a wide-beamed cargo ship with two banks of oars, a curving prow and stern, and two masts with a confusing amount of sail. It rocked serenely at its dock, while on that dock and the land from which it jutted, all was utter chaos.
The narrow streets rang with noise: the sharp cracking of whips, the cloppings of hoofs against cobblestones, equine screams of fear and anger, and shouts and curses from Dynasian’s guards. The guards had taken over that comer of the city, blocking common folk, sailors, and merchants from the plain, whitewashed stone shops and taverns Even so, the streets were crowded, what with guards and home handlers-and the emperor’s captive unicorns.
None of the guards realized that they were being watched. Illyria and her warriors had moved silently over the rooftops, unnoticed by anybody at that early hour, and were slipping softly down to hide in the shadow of a large stone warehouse.
“All right,” whispered Dian eagerly. “We made it. We’ve got a ringside seat. Are we just going to sit here and watch?”
“Yes,” said Illyria shortly.
“Hush, now. Use your eyes. There are just too many enemies out there right now. We can’t Just boldly attack, not seven against an army.”
“Now you’re talking sense!” muttered Myno.
“But we’re not giving up, either. If we can’t attack, we’ll use stealth, instead.”
“Sure, but how?”
“Shh. Here comes Darian and our unicorns.”
The warriors watched in tense silence as Darian, the very image of brash youth, sauntered over to the guard who seemed to be overseeing the ship. They couldn’t hear everything that was said, but words drifted back to them:
“Guess your men let these unicorns loose.”
The guard muttered something angrily.
“They didn’t?” continued Darian blithely. “You mean it was an accident?” He grinned. “An accident like maybe too much drinking last night?”
Illyria winced. “Don’t improvise, Darian,” she muttered under her breath. “Just give him the unicorns and get out of there before he thinks to ask how you’re controlling seven unbridled animals!”
Darian did his own wincing as the guard yelled at him. “Okay, okay,” the boy said soothingly, “I get it. No drinking while on duty. The unicorns just got out by themselves.” He shrugged. “If that’s the way you want it, fine. Hey, don’t get mad at me! I wasn’t the one who let them out! Anyhow, here they are, all ready for loading. Long live the emperor and all that.”
The unicorns weren’t at all happy about being loaded brusquely onto something as unfamiliar as a ship. Quiet Storm rolled an eye back to where Illyria was hiding, as though asking, You don’t really mean this, do you? But they obeyed, and soon were aboard.
“Now, get out of there, Darian!” murmured Illyria.
But no. He was lingering, plainly asking for a reward.
That was too much for the irate guard. He snapped out an order. And then Darian was running for his life as soldiers chased him away. The women waited nervously until at last he managed to elude the men and slip back to join his sister.
“How was that?” he asked, panting and proud.
“Not bad,” Illyria said dryly, frowning. Her brother’s clever antics hadn’t amused her at all. “Now all we have to do is wait till the other unicorns are on board, then create some sort of diversion . . something to get the guards away from the ship.
Sheila straightened. “I think I’ve got just the thing!”
Hastily she whispered her idea to Illyria. “Beautiful, Sheila!” Illyria scanned the area with her sharp eyes. “Yes . . . Do you think you can slip over to that building, the one close to the loading dock, just around that bend in the street? More important, do you think you can get back to us in time without getting caught?”
Sheila hesitated, heart racing. The last thing she wanted was to wind up back in that dark prison! She could feel Dian’s unfriendly gaze on her and realized that the girl expected her to fail. But she couldn’t fail. Right now she was the only one who could help the unicorns. “Yes,” Sheila said firmly.
Illyria clasped her hand briefly. “Then go, now, before any of the guards chance to look this way. When you get there, wait for my signal.”
Sheila took a deep breath and summoned all her courage. Then she was off, trying to run down the narrow street without making a sound. The cobblestones were slippery and uneven, and she was sure she was going to fall with a crash that would alert all the guards. Somehow she managed to keep her footing, and reached the house Illyria had indicated without any problems. Quickly, remembering one of the warrior’s lessons she had been taught, Sheila checked for an escape route.
Yes. She could swing herself up on that balcony easily enough, scramble along the roof, and jump down again to regain the others.
Sheila waved to Illyria to show she was all right, then settled down to do the only thing she could right now: wait and watch.
There was a lot to see.
The unicorns weren’t making it easy for the guards, not at all. Unlike Quiet Storm and the others, they didn’t know that this was all part of a plan to save them. And so they fought every step of the way, terrified and furious determined not to let themselves be led by these two-legged foes. But the sweating, swearing, equally furious men fought back, dragging them forward, foot by reluctant foot, pulling the ropes tight around the graceful necks and bodies. The unicorns refused to yield. Sleek white or brown or chestnut coats were wet and shining with the sweat of fear. Small ears were pinned flat back against lovely heads, and eyes rolled wildly. Now and again a unicorn, screaming in rage, would try to lunge, threatening a guard with horn or teeth. But each time the ropes would drag him back again.
Oh, the poor things! Thought Sheila, remembering Morning Star running with the sheer joy of freedom. I wish I could tell them it’s going to be all right!
The unicorns weren’t completely defenseless. As the girl watched, wide-eyed, two of the guards yelped in pain and fell aside, swearing because sharp unicorn hoofs had kicked out and connected. For a second the other guards hesitated, startled at the thought that they, too, might get hurt.
But the men’s fear of Dynasian’s wrath was far greater than their fear of being kicked. And the slow, struggling procession continued, coming closer and closer to the waiting ship.
When the first of the unicorns stepped out into the dock, and felt the hollowness under their hoofs, they stopped short, rearing in terror. The unicorns behind them screamed in sympathy and began fighting the ropes with all their strength. Guards were hurled off their feet, falling to the cobbles and wriggling frantically out of the way of flying hoofs. Some of those on the dock lost their footing on the wet, slippery wood and went plunging, splashing and cursing, into the sea.
“More men!” shouted the guards. “Get more men up here! Hurry!”
One by one they finally got the unicorns onto the ship and down into the storage area. Sheila, watching keenly, saw Illyria’s hand rise and suddenly drop. The signal!
Okay, here we go!
She pressed a button. All at once the air was split by Michael Jackson singing “Beat It” at the tape player’s full volume. Just as Sheila had hoped, the blaring music echoed off the walls. The twisted alleys and streets were like an echo chamber, bouncing the music back and forth along the narrow streets till it didn’t even sound like music anymore. It sounded just like the shouts of a whole mob of angry people!
For a moment the guards froze in sheer shock. Then someone cried out, “We’re being attacked!” And they all erupted into wild movement, swords out, spears at the ready, searching this way and that.
They can’t tell where the music’s coming from! Sheila realized.
But the guards’ leader was barking out angry commands, and the men were splitting up into companies, each group starting grimly down a different street. One company was headed straight toward Sheila.
Uh-oh. Time to leave!
She climbed up to the roof as she had planned, ran to the end of it, and jumped down to rejoin the warrior-women.
“Well done, Sheila!” whispered Illyria. “But your magic trick isn’t going to fool them for very long.”
“They’ve left only a few men on board,” said Pelu. “Just as we hoped! All we have to do is reach the gangplank without attracting any attention.
“Sure!” cut in Darian. “Then we can rush the ship and overpower them before they can fight back.”
Nanine nodded. “The wind’s in our favor. We should be able to cast off and sail safely out to sea before anyone can stop us.”
Illyria grinned. “Come on. We have a ship to catch!”
It should have worked. It nearly did work. But just as the women were about to make their rush up the gang­plank, there was a crash and a blinding flash of light behind them.
Sheila whirled, blinking to clear her dazzled sight. “Mardock!” she gasped. “He’s found us! And-and he’s got a whole army of guards with him!”

Back To Chapter Listings!

Chapter 1: Swept Away
Chapter 2: Arrival
Chapter 3: Captured!
Chapter 5: The Quest
Chapter 6: Sheila Enlists
Chapter 7: Warrior-In-Training
Chapter 8: Rivalries
Chapter 9: The Rescue
Chapter 10: Illyria's Story
Chapter 11: Campora at Last
Chapter 12: Trapped!
Chapter 13: The Ghost
Chapter 15: The Battle
Chapter 16: Sailing Away