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by Margo Fallis
Homeward Bound

          The sun rose over the horizon filling the sky with puffy white clouds. They absorbed the sun’s rays, setting everything ablaze with crimsons, carnation pinks and tangerine oranges. The five left the camp without disturbing a soul and began their trek back home. “We’ll stay together most of the way and then split up when we near our homes.” Braden suggested this for safety purposes. None forgot the black dragons at Steffer Pass. “I suggest we go home a different route. It might take longer, but at least we’ll avoid the hazards we encountered on the way here.” The others agreed.

     “How about going through the Mountains of Takir. It will take a few days longer, but it will be much safer.” The others accepted Corin’s suggestion. The Mountains of Takir, tall and rugged, rose to a height of 25,000 feet. The snow-covered peaks made the journey challenging and difficult. For several uneventful days they traveled in single file, hiking the trails towards the tops of the mountains. “There’s a pass up ahead. It’ll take us right through the mountains. We should be able to avoid the worst of the snow. It’s narrow, though, with steep walls up the sides all the way. It’s a bad place to be trapped.”

     “Trapped? Trapped by what, Corin? Are there more dragons up there? I don’t want to be trapped. Can we please go another way? Please, Corin.” Fingal’s fear affected the others.

     “Maybe he’s right. Why put ourselves in danger?” Cafania thought of the dragons.

     “I don’t want to be trapped either. Let’s go a different way.” Gorbal’s mind raced, thinking of all sorts of horrible creatures lurking in the pass.

     “I think Corin’s way is the best way. Don’t get yourselves worried over nothing.” Braden comforted the others. They soon reached the head of the trail through the pass. Corin decided to take the lead and Braden the rear. Not wanting to frighten the others any further, Corin held back his knowledge of a snow monster residing in these mountains. He hoped it spent its days sleeping and wouldn’t bother with them.

     Step by step they made their way along the dirt path. Cafania, thrilled by the rugged mountain peaks and windswept valleys, giggled at the sight of snow. A pile of it lay in their way. “It must have fallen off the ledge up there.” She looked up. Snow hung over the edge of the cliff walls. “I hope that doesn’t fall on us.” She hurried down the path.

     Braden scooped a handful of snow and formed it into a snowball. He threw it at Cafania. It splattered against the back of her head.

She turned, wiping the snow from her hair. “Hey! Who did that?”

     Braden turned and looked behind him, shrugging his shoulders. “I don’t know.”

     “Maybe it was a monster. Maybe it was a dragon. Do dragons make snowballs? Did you see a dragon?” Fingal ran and hid behind Corin’s legs. “Corin, a dragon threw the snowball at Cafania.”

     Braden laughed.

Cafania ran back and picked up a handful of snow. She threw it at Braden, hitting him in the stomach.

“You asked for it now.” He ran towards her. The others joined in. Soon snowballs flew every direction. Each of them pelted the other with huge balls of icy snow. Even Corin joined in. He rubbed Fingal’s face in the snow.

 A few minutes later Fingal snuck up behind Corin, pulled the back of his pants open and dropped ice down inside. Corin ran around shouting, reaching down to grab the cold slush. “Who did that? Was it you, Fingal?” The dwarf shook his head no. “Was it you, Gorbal?” Gorbal shook his head no. “Then who put snow in my pants.”

 Corin’s eyes went to Cafania.

 “It wasn’t me. No sir. I didn’t do it.”

A snowball flew through the air and hit Corin right between the eyes. Braden dropped to the ground laughing. “Gotcha!”

“I’m going to make a snow angel.” Cafania lay in the snow and rubbed her arms up and down.

“I want to make an angel too.” Fingal lay down next to her and moved his arms.

“Me too.” Gorbal joined them. “Come on, Corin. Come on, Braden. Make angels with us.”

Shrugging their shoulders in defeat, they lay down next to the others. When the thrill of making snow angels and throwing snowballs had worn itself out, one by one  they jumped up and brushed the snow off. They shivered from the wetness. The sun went behind the clouds. “I’m freezing.” Cafania rubbed her arms. “Let’s find some sunshine.”

Before they moved an inch a loud rumbling noise came from high above. Corin looked up in time to see the overhang of snow coming over the edge of the cliff. “Watch out!” He ran and hid under a rock ledge. Each darted off in another direction, trying to find safety. The snow pummeled the ground where they’d been standing. When the last of the snow fell, a pile twenty feet high blocked the path. “Great! Just great!” He slipped and slid up to the top of the snow bank, searching for the trail. He shouted down to the others. “There’s at least 500 yards of trail buried under this snow. You’ll have to climb up here and then we can walk along on top until we reach the path again.”

The sun came out from behind the clouds. One by one they scaled the snow pile. “It’s pretty  up here.” Fingal saw tiny icy sparkles glittering in the sunshine. Walking on snow proved a difficult task. Fingal, being the lightest, ran across it with no problem. Corin and Braden, the largest of the group, sunk with every step. After pulling and plodding, falling and cursing for over an hour they stood on the path again, tired, worn out, but safe. “Why did all this snow fall? Was it an avalanche? What causes avalanches? Was it a dragon? Did a dragon make the snow fall?” Fingal looked into the sky, trying to spot a dragon, but none flew by.

Tree trunks with long, gnarled roots covered with dirt, jutted out of the snow. “That was one powerful avalanche.” Gorbal started to sweat. “Let’s hurry and get out of this pass. I don’t like it here.”

Corin knew the reason. “Let’s get moving then. We’ve got another three miles until we’re out of this mess. I suggest we move quickly, in case another avalanche comes.” He took his knife out of his pocket and held it in his hand, not letting the others see. He kept a faster pace. Fingal and Gorbal, both with shorter legs, struggled to keep up with him. His eyes darted all around, keeping watch. Out of the corner of one eye, he saw something move on the ridge in front of them. Had any of the others seen it?

“Did you see that?” Fingal answered Corin’s unspoken question. “I saw something. It was moving around up there on the edge of the cliff. It looked at me. It had snow eyes. Did anyone else see it? Did you, Corin? You’re in front. You’re supposed to watch out.”

Corin didn’t answer. His hand grasped the knife tighter. “Shut up, Fingal. I saw something move, yes. I think I know what it is too. It’s time I warned you.”

“Warned us? Warned us of what?” Cafania wasn’t sure she wanted to know the answer. “Don’t tell me there are trolls up here in the mountains?”

“No. There are no trolls. Worse. I’ve heard tales of these mountains. There’s a snow monster that lives here. It’s large, very large, covered with long, white hair, and has long sharp teeth. It hides in the snow and since it can’t be seen because it’s the same color as the snow, it jumps up and catches a meal for itself, usually some unsuspecting person on their way through the pass. It’s high up there, so if we hurry, we may make it out of here before it comes down here looking for a meal.” Corin started to run.

“That’s good enough for me.” Gorbal dashed after Corin.

“Me too.” Cafania followed 

“Wait for me!” Fingal ran as fast as his short legs could take him.

Braden stared at his running companions. “Well, what am I waiting for?” He ran, catching up with the others and helping the smaller ones alon

               *  *  *

     The group passed by streams frozen with ice, tall pine trees decorated with cones, boulders, and icicles hanging from the cliffs above. Cafania noticed a cardinal perched in one of the trees. She wished she’d had time to stop, but when a loud, ear-piercing roar came from above she ran faster.

 “Let’s move it,” Corin shouted. “We’re almost there.” They saw the end of the pass up ahead. Corin ran out first.

Cafania followed. She kept on running even though Corin had stopped. She ran until she came to a huge pile of boulders and hid behind them.

Just as Gorbal was about to exit the pass, a large hairy white hand reached down and grabbed him by the neck, lifting him. Gorbal watched the ground move further and further away from him. The monster held him in front of its face. Gorbal smelled its breath and didn’t like it. He was too terrified to move or speak.

     “It’s got Gorbal!” Fingal screamed, relieved it wasn’t him this time. Braden took out his spear. Cafania dropped her pack and removed her bow and arrows. She shot them at the snow monster. It swatted them away, not being bothered by any of their weapons. It walked away, carrying Gorbal with him. The ground shook with each step as it made its way up the mountainside.

     Braden cupped his hands around his mouth. “Put him down!”

     “Forget it, Braden. It’s not afraid of us.” Corin stood by watching the snow monster and their friend disappear over a ledge. “Great! Just Great! Can’t anything go right for us? Why do we always have to go through things like this? First it was wolves, then dragons, then trolls, and now snow monsters?”

     “Calm down, Corin. Now isn’t a good time to lose our sense. We’ve got to free Gorbal. After all, we need him, don’t we? Besides being our friend, he has the Book of Spells and the Healing Stone. Let’s think of a way we can save him instead of cursing him.” Braden wiped his brow.

     “You’re right. Sorry, Braden. I just get so mad sometimes. Nothing is going right for us.”

     “Life is full of problems, that’s as sure as the sun rising each morning. Right now Gorbal’s got a big problem. He’s about to become lunch for a snow monster.”

     They joined the others to discuss their alternatives. “We’ve got to start climbing up there. We don’t know how long it will be before the monster eats him. Right?” Cafania shivered, thinking how frightened Gorbal must be.

     “She’s right. I saw a trail leading up the side of the mountain. Before we start, there a few things I should warn you about. This snow monster may have a companion. It may not, but it may, so be careful. Watch your step. If we make any noise at all, we’ll start another avalanche. If we’re out in the open, there’s no escaping it. Keep quiet. No sneezing, no coughing and no screaming.” Corin leered at Fingal. “If I remember, a certain dwarf stepped on an acorn outside the trolls’ cave and made a lot of noise.”

     Fingal looked at the ground. “I’ll be quiet, Corin.”

     “We’ve only got a few hours to do this because when the sun goes down, the temperature drops about sixty degrees. We’ll die of exposure to the cold. Do you understand?” The others nodded. “All right then, let’s start.”

     They hiked up the trail. Fingal struggled after the path turned steeper. His short, stubby legs weren’t meant for hiking and he had to walk twice as fast as the others just to keep up with them. Corin noticed him huffing and puffing and knew he needed a rest, but they had to keep on going. Cafania kept up with the men without a problem, but she too worried about Fingal. She whispered to Braden, “I’m worried about Fingal. He’s tired. Maybe I should stay here with him and let the two of you go ahead and save Gorbal. A dead Fingal is not what we want, is it?”

     Braden stopped and turned to Fingal, who looked exhausted. His face dripped sweat and was beet red. His hair drooped and clung to the top of his head. “All right. You stay here with Fingal. If we’re not back by sunset, head back down and find shelter.”

     Corin joined them. “What’s the problem?”

     “Cafania and Fingal are staying here. He’s not able to continue and he can’t stay here alone, so Cafania will stay here. We’re going to have to save Gorbal ourselves.” Braden and Corin headed up the trail.

Cafania sat on a rock. It was the first time Fingal had been quiet the entire trip. “Are you all right?”

     Fingal gasped for breath. “I’m okay.” Cafania let him rest and watched as Corin and Braden climbed towards certain danger. A cold breeze blew over the mountain. Cafania opened her pack and pulled out a blanket. She moved closer to Fingal and wrapped it around him, tucking it under his legs. “Thank you.” He lay against a rock and  closed his eyes.

                   *  *  *

     Braden and Corin hiked for what seemed like hours. The ledge was only a few hundred feet above them now. They could hear the snow monster grunting. “That doesn’t sound good. Poor gnome. He’s probably scared to death.” Corin shook his head back and forth with worry.

     “What’s the plan? You do have one, don’t you?” Braden put his hands on his waist.

     “Yeah, sure. I’ve got a plan,” Corin said, not knowing what it was yet.

     “Just then a hairy hand reached down and scooped them both up. “What the ….” Corin’s words died as the beast closed his fist over them. The snow monster growled and then carried the two helpless men up to the ledge, dropping them next to Gorbal. It happened so fast that both were confused. The monster dropped them at Gorbal’s knees.

     Braden, rubbed his forehead in pain. “Was this your plan, Corin?”

     Corin didn’t answer. He looked around evaluating their situation. They were on a rocky ledge, cut into the mountain by nature. A few flowering plants grew out of the rocks. Loose pieces of stone lay about, having fallen from above. Pine trees grew all around, along with some quaking aspen that had lost all their leaves. The snow monster sat in a nest of some kind about twenty feet away. It was made of pine straw needles and twigs. Scattered all around the nest were human bones.  “It just sits there,” Gorbal said.

     “Well, soon its going to want a snack and it’ll be us he’ll eat,” Corin said.

     Not knowing what else to do they sat in silence, waiting whatever would come next.

                   *   *   *

     Cafania and Fingal waited and waited, but there was no sign of Corin or Braden. Cafania lay on her back looking up into the trees. She saw a few squirrels running up the tree trunks, carrying acorns and nuts. She marveled that the deer seemed so carefree frolicking about the forest with no worries.

     Fingal sat wrapped in the blanket, staring straight ahead. Off to the side he thought he saw a movement. He turned his head to look. All he could see was snow. He turned back and stared straight ahead. Again, he saw a movement from the side. He turned again and looked. Still all he saw was snow. He gazed a little longer, wondering what he’d seen. He figured it must have been a deer. Seeing nothing, he turned back.

     The hair on the back of his neck stiffened and sent tingles down his legs. He sensed danger and turned his head once more towards the side. A huge hairy face with big bulging gray eyes, a rubbery pink nose and cheeks, and sharp fangs, dribbled drool. Fingal didn’t move; he froze in terror. The snow monster breathed on him, sending a surge of alertness through him. Unable to control his fear, he screamed an ear piercing scream.

Cafania jumped up. She saw the snow monster and stepped backwards, but it was too late. The monster reached out and grabbed her with its hand, picking Fingal up with the other. Screams echoed through the valleys as the monster climbed the mountain.

                   *  *  *

From up on the ledge, Braden, Corin, and Gorbal heard Fingal’s screams. They went to the edge and looked down. “There are two of them,” Braden said, watching as another snow monster made its way towards them.

     “That one has got Fingal and Cafania.” Gorbal swallowed. “Oh great! Just great! That’s all five of us now. How are we going to get out of this one?”

     “Where’s your Book of Spells?” Corin asked the gnome.

     “See that pile over by the nest? That’s my pack. The monster took everything out of it and tossed it all around. My Book of Spells is over there.” Gorbal pointed to a stack of logs.

     Braden and Corin saw the pack. The second monster came up onto the ledge and dropped the still screaming dwarf next to Corin. It put Cafania down near Gorbal. Fingal wouldn’t quit screaming. Finally Corin had to hit him across the face to shut him up. Fingal stopped and fell to the ground unconscious. The two monsters grunted, communicating with each other. They both went silent and turned to look at the five.

     “Uh oh,” Corin said. “I think time is up.”

     Fingal lay still on the ground. Cafania stared at the two creatures. Corin and Braden looked on the ground for something to use as a weapon. Gorbal made a decision that he knew might cost him his life, but since he knew it would soon be over anyway, he took the chance. He sprung to his feet and ran as fast as his short, fat legs could go towards the pile of logs. The others watched in terror as one of the snow monsters reached for him. Gorbal grabbed his Book of Spells just as one of the creatures picked him up by the shirt and lifted him towards its mouth.

     “Oh no!” Cafania buried her face in Braden’s shoulder.

     Gorbal opened the book. He turned the pages, searching for the ‘S’ page. He glanced down the list and saw ‘Snow Monsters’. The beast held him above its mouth. Gorbal smelled and felt its warm breath blowing on his face. He began reciting the spell, trying to make the two beasts disappear. He read faster. The monster dropped Gorbal, who fell towards its gaping mouth, but suddenly the hairy white creature vanished; so did the other one. Gorbal raced to the ground at a thunderous speed.

     Cafania, Corin, and Braden, watched the gnome crash into a snow bank. They ran toward him, afraid of what they might find. There lay Gorbal, flat on his face, about three feet down in the snow. “Is he alive?” Cafania didn’t think he looked too alive.

     Corin reached in and grabbed Gorbal, pulling him out. Corin laid him on Gorbal’s back. The gnome coughed. He had snow caked in his nose, ears, and eyes. He brushed the snow off, mumbling to himself. Cafania laughed a frightened, but relieved sigh.

     Braden helped Gorbal brush the snow off. He pulled him up to a standing position. “You did it, my friend! You saved us once more!” Braden congratulated the gnome, patting him on the back.

     “That was very brave of you, Gorbal.” Cafania hugged him.

     “Yeah! Thanks.” Corin uttered the words in a whisper.

     Gorbal looked around. “I did it! I got rid of those two snow monsters. I don’t know where they went, but at least they’re gone.” He clutched the Book of Spells. “I did it!”

     “You sure did. You saved our lives.” Corin thanked him in his own way. Just then they remembered Fingal. “The dwarf!” He ran over to where Fingal lay. “Wake up.” He nudged him with his foot. “The monsters are gone. You can wake up now.” Fingal lay still.

“What’s wrong with him?” Cafania moved closer.

     “I don’t know. He’s out like a light.” Corin said, “Go get me some of that snow.” Cafania glared at him. She didn’t like any man ordering her about, but went for a handful of snow. She put it in his hands. Corin bent over and rubbed some on Fingal’s face. He started moving around. Corin pulled open Fingal’s pants and shoved the snow inside. “This’ll wake him up.”

     Fingal’s eyes opened wide. “What is this?” He jumped up and danced around. “Who put snow in my pants? Who did it? Was it you, Cafania? Was it you, Braden?”

     “It was me.” Corin bellowed with laughter.

     Fingal reached into his pants and pulled the snow out. “Wait a minute. Where’s the snow monster?” He ran and hid behind Corin.

     “Both snow monsters are gone now.” Cafania smiled. “Thanks to Gorbal.”

     “Both? There was more than one?” Fingal looked all around.

     “There were two of them. Gorbal used a spell to make them disappear.” Braden patted Gorbal on the back. “He’s our hero.”

     “Oh,” Fingal said.

     They helped Gorbal put things back in his pack and then headed down the mountain. They stopped half way to pick up Cafania’s blanket and pack and then went down to the boulders to gather the rest of their things. The pass disappeared behind them as they walked towards the sunset.

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