"What in the name of all that's whole and goodly is THAT?"
Helge-Dag stares. That river is yellow, and what's worse, it is dusty. It is a river not of water but of sand, lots and lots of sand, moving restlessly down the gently sloping valley, slowing down and spreading out to the south as it runs into the desert.
"This place is called Tyme's End" explains Theelene. "It is situated where the Sands of Tyme empty out into the Great Desert. It is a trading post, as two enchanted roads meet here - or split, in our case ..." "The river, I mean! What's with this place, that the rivers are made of sand instead of water? Are all rivers in this world like this?" "Oh, no, not at all! This is the only sand flow in the whole world. The Sands of Tyme, it is called. It runs from the Upper Desert through the Unknown Jungle to the Great Desert. The chill winds blows the sand dunes to the eastern end of the Upper Desert, where they are piled up. From there, some of the sand is always sliding through Sand Gap and into the valley. Driven by the cold winds and its own weight, the sand and dust slides almost like a river through the valley, which soon turns south. Eventually it arrives here."
Helge-Dag shakes his head. It sounds almost plausible. But ... "What about the jungle? A jungle requires water, lots of water!" "Do I look like a wood elf to you?" "No idea, I have never seen a wood elf." "Oh. They are kinda thin, long pointy ears..." "Why don't you folks have pointy ears anyway, if you are elves?" "We are stone elves! Stone elves don't have long ears!" "Well, how could I know that? The only things I know about elves is that they have long ears, they are kinda good with magic, and they don't exist. You are good with magic, but she isn't ..." He flips a thumb in the direction of Xarya "so that's on average 0.5 out of 3, not a very good match. Besides, dwarves are supposed to work with stone, not elves." "There are no dwarves on Earth. I mean, our Earth. Well, perhaps a few traders and adventurers and stuff. But dwarves aren't really big on traveling."
Helge-Dag looks at her. "Why do you call yourself elves, anyway, when
you don't have pointy ears?"
Eventually the others catch up. "So you think ears make the elf?" asks Birni innocently, but Helge-Dag does not need to turn his head to know that the bear-boy is grinning from ear to ear. "Fine by me! You call yourselves mermaids or unicorns if you want to! See if I care." "But you do care. You are angry." "I am angry because you laugh at me for no reason. The girls go around pretending to be more than human but they can't point out one single difference. They're just playing word games and think that makes them somehow better than me. And you're siding with them, not that I had expected more from you." "HD, how old are you?" asks Theelene behind him. "18" he lies. It is only a very small lie. He will probably be 18 before they get along to do anything illegal anyway. At least the way things are going now ... "I am 78" she replies.
He whirls around and looks at her. She is not laughing now, not even grinning. Nor are any of the others, though Xarya still seems somewhat amused at his expression. "Elves have a much longer life span, HD" the younger looking woman continues. "We don't really feel that we are better than humans ... but we have a lot more time to perfect our skills, and we don't need to spend most of our life breeding and raising young in order for our species to survive. So, yes, I consider myself lucky to be an elf. But not as if I am more valuable in the eyes of the Goddess." "You cannot possibly be 78! You look like maybe 19!" This time she giggles. "When I was 19, I was still a child. I did not start to become a woman until I was almost 40." "You've been a teenager since before I was born!" "I'm younger than some." She glances meaningfully at Xarya. "120" supplies the chainmail wonder. "Now THAT's a turn-off! Uh ... I mean ... that's not what I expected."
They have come close to the bottom of the valley, and the air is rapidly getting colder. They can smell the dust on the cold wind that blows constantly from the north. A small path goes south of the cluster of houses, and another goes north of it. Helge-Dag has to wait here, for he does not know which one to take. They turn north. The dusty smell grows stronger, and the air here is almost uncomfortably cold even though the sun is still well above the rim of the valley. Now that they are close to the river of sand, Helge-Dag realizes that it is not like a normal river after all, only with sand instead of water. Theelene's name for it, "sand flow", is much better. The sand is of a loose and easy- running quality, but it does not run all the time. There are myriad of small flows of sand running at any one time, and as they build up too high in one place, that particular heap of sand starts to slide out, and runs for a while until it stops and builds up again. In fact, most of the sand is lying still at any one time, though there is always movement somewhere around you, and a steady fog of dust blowing along the surface.
Everyone fastens a piece of cloth in front of their mouth and nose, and Theelene gives one to the visitor. The trolls do not use this mask; then again, they probably rise above the dust fog. It mostly follows the surface, but some of it swirls up in the air. In front of them, the path leads to a long rectangular rock that stands a ways above the surface of the sand flow. In front of it, there is a gap, and then there is another block, further out in the flow, and further north. There is a line of them, set in the middle of the sand river. They may be easily twenty paces apart. Theelene gestures, and the path of sparks form under their feet. As they start to walk, the path seems to contract; the long narrow stones are now shorter than they are broad, and the gaps between them are also so short that you can comfortably step from one to the next. Helge-Dag dares not stop even for a moment, for fear that he might be stranded out in the middle of the flow. He does not think it would be a good idea to try to walk on the sand. It seems very loose, and always moving. He could sink into it and never be seen again, for all he knows. Besides, down there the air is a smoke of desert dust, swirling in icy cold eddies. He hurries onward, close on the heels of Theelene. He dares not even take his eyes off the stepping stones, much as he would have liked to.
Eventually they get into the rhythm, and following the stepping stones becomes automatic. Helge-Dag starts to think about other things again. He remembers the little old lady who led the feast in the village. "How old can elves get? Do you ever die of old age?" "Aging slows down a lot once we grow up" says Theelene. "Entandil is 778 ... yes, he is 700 years older than me. Makes it easy to remember! Well, for me at least. The oldest in our village is Enida at almost 1800! Most start to wander away long before that. I guess when we grow old, we start to be less careful about our lives. But some also just stop eating and start to wither away, especially if they lose their soul mate. They want to be reborn together." "You believe in rebirth?" "Of course. At least for those who want it. It is said that great mystics prefer to go into the nameless Light and dissolve the ego forever. I wouldn't know."
"This soul mate thing ... does everyone have one? In my world, it seems only a few people have a real soul mate." "Yes, with your short life you may never find them. It must be harsh, living such short lives, having to breed with strangers and then die." "There is a bit more to human life than that, actually." "Most of us elves do not breed unless we find a soul mate that is of the other sex. Luckily we have much time." "Soul mates may be of your own sex??" "Oh, absolutely. It is not nearly as common, though. And often this happens to those who already prefer the caress of their own sort. But sometimes it comes as a complete surprise." "So people, uh, caress even before they meet their soul mate?" "HD! Do not make us laugh when we are on the stones! It could be unpleasant." "Sorry. I really am this stupid." "You are a human and a stranger. Perhaps we should concentrate on the path for now."
He concentrates on the path, red-faced.
He is still trying to concentrate when the sun dips below the horizon, or rather the edge of the valley. The evening comes early here in the valley. The green jungle to both sides grow dark and even more uninviting. Perhaps it was after all not such a bad idea to have this path in the middle of the river. They are not easily attacked here, by whatever creatures may lurk in that dense jungle.
"We should be at the Gap before nightfall proper. Near the Gap is the Rakshasaloka tower. Inside it, we can teleport to the closest of the two Rakshasa worlds. The area on the other side is in rather bad shape, but we should find a place to stay safely for the night." "Fine" says Helge-Dag, "my feet are getting sore." "Want me to carry you?" asks Birni. "Uhm, no. I just look forward to a rest, is all." "Before nightfall" assures Theelene.
She knows her things. The sun is down but it is still not quite twilight as they leave the sand flow and come to a stony ridged landscape. It is cold now, so cold that Helge-Dag shivers even while walking briskly. He hopes it is better on the other side, wherever that is. The gap, from which the Sands of Tyme fall, is to their right now, and partly behind them. On one of the low ridges to the west is a stone tower, simple and unadorned, a mighty cylinder raised toward the sky. It is far larger than he had expected, nearly the height of the Eiffel Tower, and large enough for a small army. Nothing like the stone circles they have used so far. He does not know the reason for this, nor does he particularly care to know. His feet hurt. He would have whined loudly if not for fear that Birni might carry him. That would be humiliating! Why don't elves ever get sore feet? He would not mind ...
"Warn you stop! Danger tower evil demon many ones! Attack evil someone we!" The voice of the female troll rings strong and clear, albeit the words are as usual jumbled and devoid of grammar. Xarya draws her sword. "Are you sure, Wise One?" "Feel we evil in tower! Wait they kill we. Want they son old ones of magic!" "OK, people. Anla says some enemy has laid ambush in the tower. We can either turn around and try to find another crossing point, or fight them. How many, Wise One?" "Twelve of twelve of bone demon." "We can take them." Birni nods, and Xarya continues: "Theelene, you stay behind with HD. Birni, battle form! On my word, path to the gate!"
Birni starts to take his clothes off.
Index of chapters.