She awoke with the feeling that something was not quite as it should be. Slowly, as she came awake, she realised that she was warm. Not only that, but she felt dry. Blankets and furs were heaped over her, and when she opened her eyes, she saw a flickering orange light. Someone had lit a fire. She remembered drifting off to sleep in the snow. She had remembered someone in a distant life telling her that it you could easyly drift off to sleep in the snow and die of exposure. She had felt that it was the easiest thing to do, out in the cold and wet. It had been pleasant, that drifting into sleep and death. Maybe she had in fact died and she was in the afterlife? Then Thadora saw rock around her. Ahh! She was in a cave.
‘I ’spect th’ others found th’ cave an’ carried me ’ere,’ she thought, ‘Though where they found th’ wood ter light a flippin’ fire I can’t imagine. Anyway, thanks, dudes.’
She turned to look to her left. She saw the fire and what looked like several other mounds of fur. Sounds of breathing and occasional snores came from them. The others, she surmised. One of the mounds stirred slightly. She saw a pair of light blue eyes and a wisp of silvery blonde hair. Randa. Randa made a shushing shape with her mouth. Thadora frowned. Why must she remain quiet? She could smell cooking now as her senses returned. Who was cooking if the others still slept?
She heard the sound of footsteps approaching the fire. Then an arm reached over her and added some logs to the blaze. Her heart began to beat rapidly. The hand seemed far too large for human, elf or dwarf; and then she noticed the arm attached to the hand. Long, snow-white hair covered it. At first, she thought it a garment, but soon realised it was part of the creature.
Thadora tried her best not to scream, but a small squeak escaped her. She shut her eyes tightly. The little girl in her told her to do this. If she could not see these creatures, they could not see her. It was not rational, but she was too frightened to be rational. She heard Fero’s voice in her head. “Savage beasts. Eat human, elf and dwarf flesh…” They had been caught by Yeti.
The snow-white yeti made a harsh grunting noise of several sounds. It moved away, and another one took its place, this time, Thadora saw when she ventured a peek through tightly squeezed eyelids, a more greyish colour. The creature seemed about nine feet tall and covered head to foot in grey hair. Hair almost obscured its face, but a pair of black eyes in which no whites could be seen gleamed from above a small black nose and a lipless mouth. Then she squeaked again, this time in surprise for the yeti spoke. It spoke Grosmerian, very badly and very slowly and obviously found it difficult to form the words, but the creature could just be understood.
‘You wake,’ it said. ‘You slep’ long. Much days. Eat food. You be better.’
With that, it put some meat down in front of Thadora. Her mouth watered, and her stomach growled, but she did not take the food.
‘Oh no,’ she said. ‘No way. I got no idea what this is, man.’
‘You eat. You need strong. This, bird from mountains. Good eat. Good for cold and warm folk.’
Thadora puzzled over the speech. ‘You mean I should eat this—bird from th’ mountains. That it’s good ter eat fer both cold and warm folk? I don’t get “cold and warm” folk!’
‘You from warm. Die in cold. We from cold. Die in warm.’
She could not resist the meat put in front of her any longer. She picked it up and took a large bite. It burned her mouth and she almost spat it out. She breathed cool air in through her mouth over the meat to cool it. The yeti made a grunting noise, almost like a laugh. The meat was delicious. Like a cross between chicken and pork.
The yeti wandered away saying, ‘I go. Too hot here. Br’ng food for rest warm folk.’
When it had disappeared, Randa rose onto one elbow. ‘Thadora,’ she hissed, ‘The food may be poisoned or drugged. You shouldn’t eat it.’
‘Randa, I don’t give a toss. I’m bleedin’ starvin’. If I’m gonna be killed by these bastards, then I’ll die wi’ a full belly.’
The greyish yeti returned with more food, which it put on the ground.
‘Not poison or drug. You must strong. Not kill. Why you think kill?’ This last it said to Randa.
There were movements from several of the other mounds of furs as the others came awake. The yeti turned its head and looked at the emerging people.
‘Who you chief?’ it said.
Carthinal started to stand and then quickly lay down again as he realised that he was naked under the furs, as indeed were all the others. The yeti curled back its lips in what Thadora supposed was a smile, but it was rather fearsome, since it showed its long canine teeth.
‘You warm more quick with no close,’ it said. ‘Have close when leave.’
Carthinal looked embarrassed, but spoke to the creature. ‘I am the leader of the group. My name is Carthinal.’ He spoke slowly and clearly to the yeti. ‘What do you want with us?’
‘I Grnff.’ The yeti pointed to itself. Grnff was obviously its name. ‘Mate she called Zplon. She beautiful, no?’
He was proud of his mate, who lurked in the cave entrance. His black eyes gleamed in the firelight as he looked lovingly towards her. She lowered her gaze and then looked at Grnff through her lashes in a very human and coquettish way, giving him a savage “smile”.
Grnff had trouble with Carthinal’s name. ‘Crthnal,’ he repeated, slowly. ‘Crthnal.’
Carthinal looked at the yeti. Fero had called these creatures “beasts,” but they were obviously more than beasts. Beasts did not light fires and talk. They would have to move with care.
‘We would feel better with our clothes. We can then get up and move around.’
‘Why not up with no close?’ asked Grnff, frowning. ‘Warm here. No need close.’
Carthinal sighed. He could not begin to try to explain the customs and taboos of the “warm folk” to a yeti. Asphodel helped him out. She had woken during this exchange.
‘In the culture of the warm folk,’ she said, ‘it is taboo for members of the opposite sex to see each other unclothed unless they are mated.’
‘Strange custom,’ said Grnff, musingly, then added, ‘Grnff giv close.’
He went to the side of the cave and rummaged among some furs. Then he brought their clothes, armour and weapons, and also some furs. ‘Fur better than cold le’ther and m’tal. Why you wear cold le’ther and m’tal?’
‘It helps to protect us from attack.’
‘Hmmm. But not good in cold. You eat. Talk after when you str’ng.’
Basalt whispered something to Carthinal.
‘I think it’s all right, Basalt. We’ll have to eat something anyway. I don’t see we have a choice. Anyway, if they wanted us dead, we wouldn’t be discussing whether to eat or not to eat. We’ve been at their mercy for quite a while, I think, and they’ve not harmed us at all. Quite the contrary, in fact. I rather think we’d have died out there in the blizzard if it were not for these…’ he hesitated, trying to find the right word, ‘These people.’ He had decided the Yeti were in fact people rather than beasts.
The members of Wolf ate their meal in silence. They were all now awake. The cave smelt slightly of yeti, but it was not too unpleasant, and not enough to put them off the delicious food. While they were eating, they speculated on their position.
‘It seems that reports of these creatures was inaccurate,’ observed Fero. ‘The little I’ve heard, they were said to be animals, but these obviously have speech and fire, so they cannot count as beasts. I’d say they need to be re-classified as being amongst the sentient races of Vimar.’
‘They don’t seem hostile either,’ put in Kimi. ‘Grnff seems friendly, and I think his mate is just rather wary of us.’
‘Now we’ve got our clothes back, I suggest we dress,’ Carthinal said. ‘As long as we’re here in the cave with the fire I think we can dispense with armour and wear these furs. Grnff was right about armour not being good to keep out the cold.’
‘Why’s he doing this? What’s in it for him?’ asked Thadora.
‘Let’s ask him when we’re dressed,’ replied Carthinal.
They agreed that the four men would dress first, and then they would go outside to see Grnff while the girls dressed. They soon accomplished this, and the eight travellers sat just inside the cave mouth with Grnff and his mate, Zplon.
‘Now, Grnff. Tell us why you rescued us and fed us. Never has it been known before for yeti, that is cold folk, to help warm folk as far as we know,’ Carthinal began the conversation.
‘Man come. Man speak Grnff language. Strange. Never warm folk speak Grnff language. Man magic. Cold folk no magic. Man say you come. Man say you need help. Man say Grnff and Zplon help. Man say you called Wolf. Man say you eight warm folk. Man say chief is magic man too. Magic man have red hair. Man say four female, four male, one male small with hair on face like cold folk. Man say one female have hair colour of cold folk. One female have red hair, one black hair. Man say one male very dark and big for warm folk. We look. We find near dead. You cold. Make fire. Wrap in fur. You thaw like icicle.’
They all felt as though someone had dropped cold water down their backs as shivers ran up and down their spines at this. Who was this strange man who knew all about them, and how did he know they were going to need help in the snow? Carthinal asked a question that made it even stranger.
‘When did this man come?’
‘Many darkness ago. We not count time. Man here in very cold time. Man here just before light is shortest.’
‘He came before the winter solstice? But that’s impossible! We hadn’t even met then. In fact, that was even before the flood on the Brundella!’ exclaimed Randa. ‘You and Carthinal had not even left Bluehaven, Asphodel!’
‘How you learn speak Grosmerian?’ Davrael asked.
‘Man teach. Man say Grnff need to speak with you or you ‘fraid.’
‘That’s the best crash course in a language I’ve ever seen,’ commented Basalt. ‘It took me months to get to the stage that Grnff is at. How did he do it?’
‘Grnff say. Man magic. Man teach by magic. And Grnff very clever. Quick to learn, man say.’ He puffed himself up with pleasure at relating the man’s words.
Asphodel touched Carthinal’s arm. He turned, heart beating wildly at her soft touch.
‘There is more here than meets the eye, Carthinal,’ she said. ‘No one could possibly have known we were coming here as far away as the winter solstice. For Sylissa’s sake, we didn’t even know ourselves. Someone described us to Grnff before we’d even met!’
‘The description could be after the event. After all, Grnff here has seen us and could have put in our descriptions himself to make a mystery and win our confidence,’ pointed out Basalt, ‘and as to speaking Grosmerian, he could have learned it at any time in the past from any passing traveller.’
‘True enough, all you said, Basalt, my friend. Just one thing I’d like to see you explain,’ Fero said. ‘How did he know we’ve called ourselves “Wolf.”?’
‘We-el,’ Basalt considered, ‘That is a bit of a problem.’
‘One o’ us could ’ave talked in our sleep,’ suggested Thadora.
‘Yes, I suppose we could have, but I prefer to think that we are being watched and guided by the gods,’ Asphodel said. ‘What did the man look like, Grnff?’ she asked, turning to the yeti.
‘He look like other warm folk. He not tall, not small. Him close have many p’kets and ink m’rks on. Him h’ve long feather in p’ket. He use to m’ke marks on white stuff him c’ll paper.’
‘Sounds a bit like the man in my dream.’
Kimi then butted in. ‘Also the man who married us in the glade on our way to Hambara.’
They left theproblem unsolved, as the group continued to talk to Grnff. The fact of the matter remained that, for whatever his reasons, man or not, Grnff had saved their lives, and for that they were in his debt. They were not all completely without suspicions. They could, as Fero pointed out later, be being fattened up for later killing and eating, a thought that Thadora did not want to think about at all. On the other hand, they had been given their weapons and armour back. Not something anyone would do if they wanted to kill you. They decided to play the whole thing by ear.
Grnff told them that he would show them the way to their destination. “The man” had told him where to take them, apparently. He insisted that they were not yet ready for the journey and the dangers they would encounter once there, and they must continue to rest and eat. He and Zplon found food and cooked it for them. How they managed to find it in the wintry conditions existing outside the cave, the others could not guess. Certainly it seemed bleak up in the mountains, but they managed to find meat and enough fresh edible vegetation to make the travellers begin to feel strong and healthy.
During this time, Thadora seemed to strike up a strange rapport with Grnff. He showed her how his long hair covered an undercoat of soft fur. He also confided in her that Zplon was pregnant.
‘She have cubs in warm time. Soon go to birthing place. Cold folk have two cubs one time,’ he told her. ‘Many cubs not live. Life hard in mountains. Cold folk have hunger. Cold folk have enemies who eat them. Animals. Some warm folk kill cold folk. Call us beasts. Say we savage and a danger. We stay away from warm folk. But Grnff like you, Red Cub. You friends not bad too.’
‘You’re a real cool dude, too, Grnff,’ Thadora told him.
The yeti frowned, not understanding. Basalt translated for him.
‘She means you’re a good man,’ he said.
During the next sixday they stayed in the cave with Grnff and Zplon. Then one day, Grnff stated they were ready to move.
‘You now strong. We go,’ he said. ‘Must leave or too late for Zplon to get to birthing place. Then cubs die. We very sad. First cubs.’
‘Oh, Grnff, we can’t risk your cubs dyin’’ said Thadora, appalled at the idea. ‘Tell us th’ way an’ take Zplon to th’ birthing place. We’ll be OK. We’re strong now, right?’
‘You not find way. We go through mountain. We take path of fire god. You good, Red Cub, but fire god angry if warm folk go alone on paths.’
‘What happens if the fire god’s angry?’ asked Basalt looking anxious.
‘He wake. He shake with anger and ground shake. He breathe fire from mountain.’
‘A volcano!’ exclaimed Bas. ‘By Kassilla’s tits, I think we’re going to go through a volcano!’
‘They must worship the volcano as a god,’ Asphodel said.
Grnff had overheard this exchange, and had obviously understood most of what had been said. He replied, ‘We have two gods. Fire and Ice. God of fire destroys if angry. Must keep him happy. He sleeps now. He sleeps for hundreds of seasons. He not like to be wak’nd. God of ice good. Makes water hard so it not run away. Makes snow to keep cold folk cool, but not too cold. Must give gift to fire god to keep him happy.’
‘What must we give?’ asked Carthinal.
‘Something you hold dear.’ Grnff replied. ‘Must be sacrifice or not good enough for god.’
They all thought hard about this, and then Kimi stepped forward. The thing I hold most dear is this ring, given to me by Davrael. It symbolises our love. No beginning and no end.’ She looked sadly at Davrael. ‘I’m sorry, my love,’ she said, ‘but if it is required for our safe passage through these mountains, I must give it up. It will not change the way I feel.’
They all then searched for something they held dear. Thadora handed over a locket that had belonged to her mother; Davrael gave an eagle’s feather, symbol, he told them, of his standing in his tribe; Asphodel reluctantly gave a ring that had been given to her by her sister. Then Fero added a stone carved in the shape of a lion’s head, which had been carved by his mentor, a ranger in his home land, and Randa, a silver pin that had been her mother’s. Basalt gave a black opal, one of the first to be found in his parents’ mine and Carthinal pulled out of his pocket an exquisitely painted miniature of a handsome couple, he an elf and she a human.
‘My parents,’ he said as he laid it on the little pile.
The Wolves looked at the pile of belongings sadly, each remembering other times, people and places.
Grnff swept them up in his huge hand. ‘Give to god in deep place,’ he said.
He then went to the back of the cave, accompanied by Zplon. The pair took a bundle of torches from a natural shelf there, and lit one each. Grnff then beckoned the others and they followed him into the deeper part of the cave.
After travelling for a while, the Wolves realised that Grnff was right. They would have soon been hopelessly lost in this maze of tunnels. However, Grnff and Zplon seemed to know exactly where they were heading and took turn after turn. They seemed to be continually going down. Basalt had grumbled at first about having given their most treasured possessions to a volcano. He would not have minded, he told them, if it had been a genuine god, but a mountain was ridiculous. Asphodel reminded him that they had to get Grnff to lead them, and he would not have done so without the sacrifice. Basalt said no more, but continued to stomp along making his displeasure clear in his body language.
‘You friend not happy, Red Cub,’ Grnff said to Thadora.
‘No! He don’t believe th’ mountain’s for real. Least not godwise.’
‘He gave. He safe. It not matter if he believe in god of mountain, god of mountain believe in him,’ came the reply.
They continued deeper into the caves. Basalt felt the most at home here, since he was a mountain dwarf, but even he jumped when they heard a rumbling deep in the bowels of the mountain.
‘Must go quick,’ said Grnff. ‘Giv’ sacrifice. God wake. Angry with strangers in him.’ And with that, Grnff began to move more quickly. Basalt, with his short legs, had to almost run to keep up with the long stride of the two yeti. Even Thadora and Kimi found they had to break into a trot every now and then to prevent themselves from being left behind.
Shortly the tunnel opened out into a large cave. Adeep crack ran across the cave and from this crack came the rumbling sounds. Grnff and Zplon went to the edge of the crack and fell to their knees. Bowing deeply, they began to chant in their strange, guttural language.
It sounded more like the growling of angry beasts that a known language, and they understood how people had thought of it as such. However, they had come to recognise several distinct sounds and phrases in the growling, and Thadora had even learned some words, although Grnff and Zplon had laughed their feral laughs at her attempted pronunciation. After a few minutes of this chanting, Grnff prostrated himself, then drew out their treasures and dropped them one by one into the fissure, saying the name of the owner, even though his pronunciation souded rather strange.
‘Tadra, the Red Cub. Dvrel, the Savage One. Littl Kimi. Black Fero. Strong, hairy Bslt, Pale Rnda. Priest of strange god, Asdel. Chief and Magic man, Crthnal.’Then they stood, turned round three times and backed away from the fissure.
Immediately after this little ceremony, there came a much louder rumble that made them move instinctively closer together. Further from the fissure. Davrael and Kimi clung together, and Carthinal suddenly found himself holding Asphodel in an instinctive desire to protect her. He quickly dropped his arms and took a step back. Then just as quickly, the rumbling stopped, and there were no more sounds.
‘You gifts accepted,’ said Grnff. ‘God say gifts good. We pass now.’
Then they saw, for the first time, the bridge that spanned the fissure. It was a natural stone bridge, but they would only be able to cross in single file and there was no parapet. Davrael visibly paled on seeing the narrow path they would have to walk. He was a man of the plains, and while a fierce warrior who knew no terror in battle, he had no experience of crossing such a path. He swallowed, and glanced to the fissure. Then Zplon murmured something to Grnff.
‘You give rope,’ he said to Fero. ‘Zplon take. Cross bridge. Grnff hold end here. You cross holding rope.’
Zplon duly crossed the narrow span, and between them the two yeti held the rope taught.
Thadora quickly skipped across the bridge without using the rope. She stopped once in the middle to look down, calling cheerfully back, ‘I can’t see th’ bottom. ’S real deep!’
‘Shut up, Thadora. You’re not helping,’ growled Carthinal to her.
She grinned and ran nimbly across to the other side. After all, in her career as a thief she had run across rooftops and climbed walls and heights did not frighten her.
‘Of course, you’d expect a thief to be able to cross high stretches. I expect it’s in the job description,’ mumbled Randa disapprovingly, as much to herself as to anyone else, which was as well as no one else seemed to be listening.
The only other person who had no qualms was Basalt. Being a dwarf and used to wandering about in mountain tunnels, the bridge held no fears for him, so he crossed next.
Carthinal insisted that Davrael go next. He had noticed the paling of Davrael’s face when he realised they would have to cross the bridge. If he left the young warrior with too much time to think, they may never get him over.
‘Go on, Davrael,’ he urged. ‘You’ve seen Thadora and Basalt go. It’s not too bad.’
‘I not afraid,’ said the plainsman, but his face belied his words.
However, he stepped forward and slowly and carefully placed his foot on the stone. He gripped the rope so tightly that even in the dim light of the cavern they could see the whiteness of his knuckles. He inched his way across, slowly.
‘Don’t look down,’ called Basalt, which was the wrong thing to say as Davrael’s eyes were immediately drawn downward.
Then he froze. He saw a deep, dark drop beneath him. His fear was almost palpable. Almost half way across his feet refused to move. His heart began to beat frantically. He thought that he was going to have a heart attack it beat so fiercely. He had fought enemies and been in danger of his life. He had tamed the wildest of horses. He could ride better than anyone in his tribe, and perform death-defying feats on horseback. He had even come face to face with a mountain lion that had wanted him to feed to her cubs, and lived to tell the tale, which was more than the mountain lion did. He had never known fear like this, though. Never again would he call anyone a coward for being afraid. All he could only see the dark beneath him. Then he heard a voice at his elbow, urging him on. Thadora had run onto the bridge and talked him across. Slowly, inch by inch, she got him to move. The span seemed to go on forever, until at last the black abyss hd disappeared from beneath his feet. His legs gave way under him and as he sank to the ground, Zplon pulled him away from the edge.
When the others were all across, they found Davrael still slumped on the ground shaking.
‘I coward. I not think me coward, but I be.’ He seemed unable to say nothing else.
‘No,’ said Asphodel, kneeling beside him, ‘That was one of the bravest things I’ve ever seen.’
Davrael looked up at her sharply to see if she were mocking him. ‘I afraid. I not able to move. You should send away in disgrace. I be outcast to show such cowardice in my tribe.’
Kimi held him, but carefully did not say anything. She knew that whatever she said to reassure him he would take as an expression of her love, and not take any notice. She let the others do the talking.
‘Have you ever been afraid before, Davrael?’ asked Fero.
‘No. I thought to be bravest in tribe. I not fear anything.’ The warrior drew himself up a little in pride, but quickly slumped again. ‘Until now,’ he finished.
‘That’s not bravery,’ continued the ranger. ‘Anyone can seem to be brave if they don’t feel fear. True bravery is to feel fear, face it and overcome it. That is what you did.’
They continued to talk to him in this manner until they had convinced him that he was not a coward, and bolstered him enough for him to be able to continue. He suggested several times that they should leave him in the mountain for his perceived cowardice. Grnff and Zplon waited patiently while this was going on, and when Davrael at last rose to his feet, they continued to lead the way through the mountain.
They continued walking until Grnff decided that they must rest.
‘It night,’ he said suddenly, and lay down, put out the torches, curled up into a ball with Zplon and promptly fell asleep.
The Wolves unpacked their bedrolls and spread them onto the rocky ground. They lay in the pitch-blackness hearing the soft breathing of the yeti pair as they slept. The darkness was complete. Only the dwarf and those with elf blood could make out anything at all.
With their infravision, they saw warm reddish mounds. Kimi and Davrael snuggled together under the furs and blankets to conserve warmth. As he looked around, Carthinal wished he could snuggle with someone too. Although not cold in the mountain, it did feel cool. He pulled the furs closer round him and turned over.
Sleep was a long time in coming even so, and it seemed that he had no longer dropped off than he felt Grnff shaking him and saying, ‘Eat. We go.’
He ate the piece of meat thrust at him, and saw the others being woken and a meagre breakfast thrust at them. He wondered how long this passage through the volcano would take and ventured to ask Grnff.
‘We out wen sun highest,’ Grnff replied. ‘Now sun get up.’
True to his word, about six hours later they emerged from a cave to see a beautiful wooded valley spread out before them.
‘We leave you now,’ said Grnff. ‘We go birthing place. Just time before cubs come.’
Carthinal turned. ‘We can’t thank you enough, Grnff,’ he said. ‘You saved our lives and guided us through the mountains. If there’s anything we can ever do for you, we will.’
‘Finish task is what you can do,’ he replied. ‘Make world safe for cubs to grow up.’
The others said their goodbyes and began to descend the slope, but Carthinal and Thadora remained where they were. Thadora flung her arms round first Zplon and then Grnff, giving them a hug. She came only about up to their waists. They hugged her back, gently. Zplon said something to Grnff and he translated.
‘We talked. We decide on naming cubs. Cold folk have two cubs, always. One male and one female. We call male Crthnal for you, red magic man and chief, and female we call Tadra, for you, Red Cub. Go. You friends wait.’
With that, the two yeti re-entered the cave and were gone.
‘Cool,’ said Thadora. ‘I never thought I’d ’ave a yeti cub called Thadora after me, an’ there’s to be one called Carthinal too, after you.’
‘At least Crthnal and Tadra, anyway. Come on, Red Cub,’ he replied, grinning at her. ‘We’d better join the others.’