Shivering under the fur wrap— made from some unfamiliar white beast – Rayek hurried up the tunnel. Ahead there was light pouring in, beautiful sunlight beckoning the way out of the dark and damp domain of the trolls. He couldn’t wait to be out in the open air and feel the warmth of the sun again. The clothes he had brought with him from the Sun Village had never been meant for warmth. Rather the opposite in fact. They were no protection in this cool underground realm and the fur wrap stolen from the trolls didn’t make much of a difference.
“Eh, Brownskin…!” Behind him, Ekuar puffed to keep up, hobbling along as best as the ancient elf could on his fake leg.
Irritation crossed the younger elf’s face, quickly followed by chagrin. Rayek stopped, though it was something of an effort not to dance with impatience. “My apologies Ekuar,” he said, though the contrition in his voice was somewhat marred by his repeated glances up the tunnel. “We are so close…!”
Ekuar chuckled. “You are so eager, young one! You do this old heart good.”
“What will do you even more good than I ever could, old one, is seeing our ancestral home once more.” Rayek’s face softened and he smiled a little down at his mentor. “Here.” Abruptly he dropped to his knees and offered his back to the elder elf. “Your bones have done enough walking. I’ll take you the rest of the way.”
Ekuar wasted no time arguing. He climbed aboard beaming with gratitude at the simple –if offhand – kindness of the act. Millennia of solitude and torture had left him numb to everything it seemed, even himself, until the miraculous day “Brownskin” had burst into his cell. Now he felt a vein of deliciously warm magma flowing through what had once been the cold stone of his self. If carrying his old body helped Rayek get to the end of the tunnel faster, it didn’t matter to Ekuar at all.
As Ekuar settled into place, fury briefly overrode Rayek’s hurry to continue. The old elf was so cursed light! Even back in the Sun Village, before Ekuar’s tutelage had helped him to extend his powers of levitation, he wouldn’t have needed to use them to help him carry the added burden. For a moment, and for the umpteenth time since finding Ekuar in the troll’s lair, he wished horrible, fiery death upon all the squat, green monsters. Then he secured his grip on Ekuar’s legs and set off.
Sharing visions of the Palace as it had been when he had seen it as a youth with his young rescuer, Ekuar found himself catching some of Rayek’s eagerness. He leaned forward over the brown elf’s shoulder and sputtered as some of Rayek’s long, black hair tickled his nose. Not daring to loose his one arm from around Rayek’s neck, he was trying to get the hair out of his face when he felt Rayek come to an abrupt halt.
“What in the name of the High Ones’ lost dwelling is this?” Aghast at the strange sight that met his desert-lion eyes, Rayek came near to dropping his precious cargo. Quickly he caught himself and softly set Ekuar down. Some sort of white sand drifted through the tunnel’s entrance. Outside it was piled deep, in some places nearly as tall as Rayek. The sun shone and sparkled off it in dazzling ways, making him – him! Veteran hunter of the desert oasis Sorrow’s End! – squint. Here and there things like the cloud-trees of Sorrow’s End but grown far taller and thicker thrust gray branches up into an impossibly pale sky, looking like clawed, desperate hands. Other trees apparently had more sense and wore under their blanket of white sand thick coats of green needles. Perhaps they were some bizarre kind of cactus?
Worse than the unfamiliar landscape was the cold wind beginning to howl around the edge of the tunnel. He clutched his fur wrap closed and took an apprehensive but determined step out onto the sand—
--and promptly sank up to his knees in something cold and wet. With a startled curse he jumped back into the relative safety of the tunnel. “Cold!” he said dumbly. He had never encountered such cold. He stomped his feet, shaking off the clumps of wet, white sand that had clung to his sandals. His legs… his legs were wet? Cautiously he reached out and scooped some of the mysterious stuff into a hand, watching in amazement as it sank in upon itself and became water as it touched his skin.
“What is this? Where are we?” He turned to Ekuar in confusion. “Where is the Palace?”
Ekuar hardly heard him. He was overcome by miracle. First his rescue and now this… the Outside which he had not seen in a mountain’s age. “Snow,” he beamed, reaching out his hand to touch the cold stuff reverently. He watched, enraptured as the crystals melted against his skin. He tottered out a few steps, for the moment feeling too dizzyingly glorious to care about the cold. “Trees,” he said, as if greeting old friends. “Evergreen, cap-nut and shiver-leaf.” He lifted his dry, wrinkled face to the sky, his deep brown eyes closing in ecstasy. “Sun.”
Watching his old mentor’s joy, Rayek momentarily let go of his consternation. The place might be strange beyond telling, cold and wet and no place for two elves with little more than stolen scraps of trollish clothing, but anything that made Ekuar smile like that, Rayek was willing to be grateful for.