A Victim of Circumstance: Part Three
Balfair’s predictions about life with his new family were right. Miffy, his new sister, had taken to him instantly and they got along like a house on fire. In fact, Balfair couldn’t imagine anyone not getting along with her. She was vivacious and bubbly, and never was an awkward moment shared between them. At first he had found it disorienting to adjust to a new home and learning to live with a human again, but as time progressed, each day seemed better than the last. At any rate, life with Rupert was infinitely better than life in the pound. Although – despite his good fortune – Balfair often found himself missing Jak’s quirky charm and wondering what would happen to him. He couldn’t help feeling that Jak would be missing his presence as well, and only wished that there was some guarantee that the two would see each other again in the future.
Any gloomy thoughts were soon swept from Balfair’s mind, however, by the bustle of preparation that had commenced soon after his arrival. He wasn’t quite sure what was going to happen, but the air of anticipation that filled the house was so thick that it was almost tangible. Coils of climbing rope lay stacked in the corridors and there were three hiking packs sitting in the living room that had been slowly filling in the days since Balfair arrived. Being born and bred in Neopia Central, he could only imagine what these preparations were for, but he didn’t have to wait long to find out.
“Hey Balfair, can you come here for a minute? I have something I need to tell you,” Rupert called from the kitchen one day. Balfair looked up from his book and trotted over. Rupert was sitting at the kitchen table, Miffy curled up on a chair beside him, both wearing the sly smile of someone about to reveal a big surprise.
“Obviously you can’t have missed the fact that Miffy and I have been preparing for something since you got here,” began Rupert. Balfair shook his head. “Well, you, Miffy and I are going on an expedition to the summit of Terror Mountain! Only if you’re willing, that is.”
A hundred and one things ran through Balfair’s head all at once, the first being ‘I wouldn’t agree to this for all the paintbrushes in Neopia! It’s called Terror Mountain for a reason.’ However, Balfair’s natural instinct as a Gnorbu conquered all other doubts and he realised this was what his woolly, wiry body was built to do. If Miffy the little yellow Aisha was up for it, so was he. In fact, this was even beginning to look fun! What had been only moments before a farfetched, impossible plan now seemed not only possible, but positively yearned after. Balfair’s hooves itched with the anticipation of being put to their proper use.
“Of course I’m willing! When do we leave?” he asked eagerly. A smile of relief broke out over Rupert’s face.
“Well, we should be finished packing in just a couple of days and as long as the weather stays fine, we’ll leave as soon as it’s done.”
Those couple of days passed like an age as Balfair counted down the minutes before they would depart. They certainly weren’t passed idly, though. Balfair had a lot of catching up to do when it came to knowledge on mountain climbing and Terror Mountain itself. The trip would be treacherous, even in the best weather and knowledge of the surroundings was imperative for survival. There were also the tasks of dehydrating food, waterproofing clothing and double checking climbing equipment that had to be completed before departure. Balfair helped where he could, and soon enough, that eagerly awaited day of departure had arrived.
The journey began easily enough on a mostly rocky path with patches of snow scattered about, winding around the outskirts of Happy Valley. Persistent mountain scrub punctuated the path but became scarcer the higher they climbed. The snow on the ground also increased until a few light patches became a thick covering. Balfair relished the feel of the crisp mountain air ruffling his coat, and he had never appreciated more his hardy hooves that found no trouble with the unsteady ground beneath his feet. So far the going had been good, but the journey had barely begun. Once the group of travellers left the well-trodden paths that ran around Happy Valley, the challenge would truly begin. The rest of the day passed uneventfully enough, and the group had set up camp well before nightfall.
Balfair woke the next day to find the tent covered with a fresh fall of snow. Miffy was still asleep but Rupert was up and had perched himself on a nearby rock to watch the dawn breaking. Balfair approached and sat himself on the flat surface of the rock beside Rupert.
“See those clouds out near the horizon?” Rupert asked. Balfair had to strain his eyes before he could see what Rupert was talking about. At the moment, they were only a dark shadow on the horizon, but their arrival was inevitable. “We should get to our next campsite before those clouds arrive so we can buckle down for the night. C’mon, let’s wake up Miffy and get going.”
The second day was not nearly so easy going as the first. The friendly gravel track had disappeared and was replaced by hard packed snow and ice. Navigation relied on the compass and markers that had been placed along the route by earlier hikers. The track (although it could barely be called that) was slippery and often took the band of travellers onto the cliff's edge. Occasionally there were crevasses in the ice that could only be crossed by rickety ladders that had been placed across them. Despite the challenges, however, Rupert, Miffy and Balfair were still set to reach the next campsite before the snowstorm hit. That was until Miffy slipped while crossing one of the ladders that served as a bridge. Her soft paws were not as adept at dealing with the mountain terrain as Balfair. The rope that attached her to the others held tight, however, and with the combined strength or Rupert and Balfair, they were able to hoist her back over the edge again. She’d hit her head on the way down and a decision had to be made as to whether they should continue or not.
“As I see it, we have two options,” Rupert explained as Balfair listened intently, hoping to be as useful as possible in the face of his first emergency. “We can either turn back now and try and get back to our first campsite. Seeing as the day is more than halfway gone, and the trip down is slower than the trip up, we almost certainly won’t reach our first campsite before the snowstorm hits. Or, we can push on to the next campsite and try to catch up on the time we’ve lost in order to beat the storm.” Miffy groaned as if to punctuate the importance of the decision that had to be made. “Miffy’s situation isn’t dire, so our first priority is to avoid the storm.”
“Can’t we camp somewhere in between?” asked Balfair. Rupert shook his head.
“There’s nowhere safe enough to pitch our tent along the way,” he explained. “So, I guess we should start pushing on now, because at the rate the storm’s coming, we’ll never make it back to the last campsite in time.” And with that, they hoisted their packs onto their backs and began to walk. Miffy’s load was shared between the two and Miffy herself rode on Balfair’s back.
The group continued in this way, with the gathering clouds behind them serving as a constant reminder that time was of the essence. Balfair’s untrained muscles strained with effort in order to keep up with Rupert’s killer pace until finally they buckled and he fell to his knees, Miffy tumbling off his back as a result. Rupert turned back at the noise and, seeing Balfair’s state of exhaustion, insisted on a break.
“Hey Balfair, once we get going again, I’ll take Miffy on my pack, okay?” he suggested kindly and Balfair was only too happy to comply. The charcoal black clouds loomed almost directly overhead and Rupert looked up at them with concern. “I guess they crept up on us faster than we expected, huh? Luckily, it’s not much further till we can set up camp.” Once recovered, the two stood up and continued their journey.
* * *
That was the last thing Balfair remembered before he began to have a vague awareness of his surroundings once again. First he began to see a bright white light with blurred, white-clad figures often passing before his vision. Occasionally some dialogue passed between these figures, spoken in the hushed tones usually heard by the bed of a terminally ill patient.
“Poor thing. I heard he was close to death when they brought him in.”
“I was there and I can tell you, I certainly didn’t think he would make it.”
“But who does he belong to? Who would allow his pet get into such a state?”
Such was the dialogue that Balfair heard as he slowly regained his senses. It could have been hours, it could have been days later that he became aware of the fact that he was a patient at the hospital back in Neopia Central with no memory of how he got there. In the following days during his recovery, Balfair gradually pieced together the story of his unlikely discovery.
In the aftermath of the turbulent blizzard that hit the slopes of Terror Mountain, a ranger and his Eyrie were exploring the route in order to examine any damage caused by the storm, as well as to discover any trace of hikers that may have been caught out. Roughly an hour’s hike further from where Balfair last remembered talking with Rupert lay none other than Balfair himself, evident only by the cloud of steam produced by his body heat that was rising from the mound of snow that covered him. The ranger quickly sent his Eyrie to fetch a rescue team of Scorchios set up with a harness to carry the motionless Gnorbu back to safety. Had he been discovered much later, fatal hypothermia would almost have certainly set in and any sort of attempt at resuscitation would have been too late. The rescue team had carried Balfair back to the hospital at Neopia, where he had spent most of his time unconscious, up until the last few days. As to what would happen next, Balfair could only guess...
To be continued...