Benda stepped lightly into the small coracle of Velornix, taking care not to upset the balance of the slight craft. Velornix himself stepped in after and positioned himself opposite him to counter-balance. With his one paddle, he cut the figure eight motion ahead in the water which softly but surely pulled them forward. Tob perched himself on Benda’s shoulder, and they peered out into the early morning mists of the lake.
No one spoke. They heard the occasional sound of ducks quacking, and frogs or other small creatures slipping into or through the water. On their periphery, they could barely make out the slim dark currents which marked the silent passing of the kumbios, who escorted them on this solemn mission.
The sky gradually grew lighter, and the mists which clung to the early morning lake seemed to dissipate somewhat. Benda was certain they would be spotted from the air, but said nothing, trying to keep his mounting anxiety down to a manageable level.
At long last, Velornix leaned slightly forward and made a sort of grunting noise. Suddenly, out of the mist, another small and lonely island rose up in front of them. Velornix deftly paddled up to its shore, hopped out, and pulled the craft just up onto the pebbly beach. Benda, a fisherman himself, stood low to maintain his balance, and hopped out to stand beside Velornix.
“Is this it?” Tob whispered. “Another island? I thought he was going to take us to-” But Benda reached up and put his hand over Tob’s mouth to shut him up.
“We’re very grateful for your help,” Benda whispered to Velornix, who, he remarked to himself, seemed uncharacteristically worried.
“Get on then,” Velornix replied in hushed tones. “Up the hill, there’s an arch. Pass through it, and you’ll be that much closer to home.” He took Benda’s arm, and clasped it in the manner of that country. “Good luck,” he said.
The two kumbios accompanying their party splashed up out of the water, and rolled over on their backs in front of Benda, who reached down to scratch them affectionately in farewell.
Velornix’s voice was urgent now. “Come then – no time to lose. The mist is almost lifted. We must both be away before that happens.”
Taking one last appreciative look at Velornix and the kumbios, Benda turned and trudged inland up the beach, over grass and brush to the foot of a low hill. It’s top was crowned in mist, but it was nearly parted. Benda kept down the panic eating at the back of his mind. An arch – like the Arch of Passing? Eradus had told him there were other portails in hidden places. Where would it take him? He tried to push the worry from his mind. He turned to glance over his shoulder, and saw that Velornix and his little vessel were already well clear of the island, heading in the opposite direction.
Just over the final crest, Benda saw it. It was not at all like the Arch of Passing which connected the Isle of Edeb to the Edebian mainland. This arch in fact had fallen in on itself, and all that remained were two rough stone columns, with some faded carvings Benda could hardly make out.
“Doesn’t look like much, does it?” Tob said from his shoulder as they approached.
“You of all people should know looks can be deceiving,” Benda replied, causing Tob to blush to the best of his ability.
The mist was very nearly completely lifted at this point. And there was no doubt in his mind that the eagle Murta was hunting somewhere in the sky overhead. Benda stepped up to the two stone columns, ran his hand across the face of one of them. Holding his breath, and closing his eyes, he lightly stepped over the fallen threshold between the two pillars.
When he opened them, sure enough, he was somewhere else. The arch hidden on an island in the lake, though old and fallen, still retained whatever measure of power was necessary to transport Benda and Tob somewhere – he hoped – far, far away.
He could not tell, at first, just how far they had passed, or where in actual fact they now found themselves. Eradus had offered no details about the possible distances one might traverse using the portail system. But it did not matter, for before long, a dawning sense of recognition rose in him as he surveyed the landscape.
They found themselves on a hill, and there was no trace of any arch or passage back to where they had come. To his right, still, Benda could sense the sea. No, he could smell it now too. It smelled near and familiar, and if he listened carefully, he could hear gulls crying. As his eyes adjusted to the brighter landscape, and he squinted off into the distance, he saw something which he had longed for dearly, but had not dared to hope for so soon. He saw home.
The city of Cannaxus rose up from the flood plain in the distance, and seeing its white towers made his heart soar. For in front of it, no more than a few hours’ march, was the little fishing village named Stennax he called home, and beyond it, the shining surface of the sea.
Home. A million thoughts and emotions surged through him, but within them all, he found a still point. The image of his wife, Lualla, and their infant son, Sol, who he had not seen in more than three years now, and who by now had no doubt grown into a child.
“We’re going home,” Benda said proudly to Tob, and he broke out into a run down the hill in the direction of the village.
Tob, who bounced along, and hung on for dear life on Benda’s shoulder, said to him, “Be careful, my friend. According to my vision, the danger is not yet passed.”
“The danger,” Benda said, between breaths as he sprinted down the hill, “is never truly passed. We must go on living just the same.”
“So we must,” agreed Tob. “So we must.”
They were silent then a while as Benda’s burst of energy gave way finally to a brisk walk, and he struck upon a cart path coming out of the north which would lead him to Stennax village, and Cannaxus city beyond.