Benda silently treaded water for a time in the dark, while a bedraggled and waterlogged Tob crawled out from the folds of his cloak, and perched himself on Benda’s shoulder. Benda drew his cloak up over his head for added cover, but after many long minutes, no challenge came at them from the sky. Though they did not yet breathe a sigh of relief, Benda began to get the sense that the eagle who was Murta had abandoned the hunt – for now.
Tob whispered in his ear though, “He’ll surely be back at first light.”
Benda nodded somberly, but was at a loss for what to do. He could not see more than a short distance in the dark, and as far as either could tell, they were somewhere in the middle of a giant featureless lake.
While mulling this over, they heard a splash behind them, which chilled them to the bone (even though Tob did not have ‘bones’). Benda held his breath, and sunk down into the water until just his eyes peered out into the darkness. Tob scrambled up to the top of Benda’s head. They waited for several breathless moments, until suddenly just in front of them, a set of big round eyes materialized, curious. Benda exhaled bubbles into the water in surprise, and was forced to surface.
The eyes were attached to a round furry face, and it mirrored Benda’s movements, rising when he rose, gasping when he gasped. And after a moment, it seemed to chitter with a kind of quiet animal laughter, and dove below the surface.
Benda and Tob looked around studiously, and from his vantage point atop Benda’s head, Tob suddenly exclaimed in a loud whisper, “Kumbio!”
And as if reciting from memory an encyclopedia entry regarding the animals of Kremel, he continued in a hushed voice: “A large aquatic rodent native to the central lakes region; a close cousin of the caproms of the nearby plains.”
“Friendly?” Benda whispered nervously.
“Playful,” Tob corrected. “Perhaps there’s some way…” Tob began.
Before he could finish though, the kumbio had returned and was looking at them again with its big round eyes. Suddenly, a second animal appeared.
“Hail, gentle kumbios!” Tob offered in a loud whisper.
They seemed to take no notice, and chittered quietly to one another. Suddenly, one of them vanished, while the other swam in a gentle circle around them, rolling over onto its back to paddle, showing its plump wet furry belly. In a moment, the second creature had returned, dragging in its mouth a water-logged branch, somewhat longer than a man’s leg. It swam back and forth in front of Benda, as if offering the branch to him. Benda seized one end of it with both hands. Without warning, the two kumbios swam off, one pulling the branch in its teeth, and thus Benda and poor Tob along with it. The other continued diving and reappearing at various distances, as if standing watch. Benda kicked with his feet to follow, and Tob simply wound his little rootlets into the cap of Benda’s cloak and hung on as best he could.
After some minutes of this, Benda could make out the shore of a small island in the lake. The kumbio towed them toward it, and Benda felt a wave of relief and exhaustion wash over him. As they made their approach, though, the first kumbio, who had been swimming in a protective ring came over to Benda, and looking at him face to face, sank below the water with what seemed like a smile. He popped up again, repeated the maneuver a second time, and then a third, nodding his head after each reappearance.
Tob whispered, “I think they want us to follow them underwater the rest of the way.”
Benda nodded silently in the dark, and said to Tob, “Are you ready?”
“Yes!” whispered Tob. They both inhaled deeply, and in a flash, the first kumbio dove and swam off, while the second, still dragging the branch tenaciously in its teeth, looked back at them once, and plunged underwater.
It was not long before they reached the underwater entry to the lodge of the kumbios. Called a kiwot in the local Squamat language, the lodge consisted of a a mound of sticks and mud, and a hollow cavity within, into which Benda, Tob, and the two kumbios entered. The air inside, Benda was surprised and pleased to discover, was warm and fresh. And he lay on his back, completely soaked, while exhaustion overtook him. Tob, meanwhile, looked about their surroundings, taking off and wringing the water from his purple hat, while the kumbios licked themselves and one another clean. He noticed that here and there, woven into the branches which composed the kiwot were a kind of luminous subtance. He inspected it closer, stroking some with a rootlet. Seaweed, he realized. They must harvest it from the lake, he thought.
The next morning, Benda woke to find the kiwot empty, except for Tob, who was rolled over onto his side, and snoring loudly. The kumbios were nowhere to be seen. Benda pulled off his cloak, which was nearly dry, and hung it from the end of a branch in the vault of the kiwot’s ceiling. He took stock of himself.
Though he had lost the harp Eril, an object of whose value he was still only dimly aware, he still had on his belt the thunderstone knife of Banarat. And he still somehow had the goblet the old man had given Eradus, and which Eradus had given to him, on their parting in the place below. It seemed odd the Xenarths had taken neither, but he got the sense perhaps they were not the brightest. In any event, the little remaining bread and cheese he kept in a pouch had turned into watery mush and slime, respectively. His stomach growled.
The sound of it was loud enough, apparently, that it even woke Tob.
“Ho there,” he said groggily. His many eyes blinked in the shafts of sunlight which penetrated through the cracks in the kiwot lodge.
“I owe you an apology,” Benda said, embarrassed.
“And let’s not forget a thank you!” Tob laughed.
“And a thank you for saving me,” Benda added.
“Twice, in fact!” corrected Tob, in a jesting manner.
“Yes, twice,” said Benda, penitently.
“And,” Tob added, “you owe me a tale – or several, I should say. When I rescue someone, it’s nice to know from what I am rescuing them.”
“Of course,” said Benda. “I’ll tell you everything.”
Benda proceeded to explain why he had crept off that morning after meeting Tob and hearing his many tales: that he was weary, and just wanted to get home to his family the quickest way possible.
“If you call this quick!” laughed Tob.
Benda smiled, and went on to tell him all that had passed since his departure, with the Xenarths, and with Murta. He told Tob about the passage through the world below, their visit to the Cloud Spire, and everything else. All the way back to his adventures in the land of Quatria.
“Mm,” Tob said excitedly, upon mention of this ancient mysterious land. “Mm, indeed.”
At that moment, the two kumbios returned, splashing up from the watery entry into the kiwot. They seemed to smile broadly, and licked themselves and one another clean once more. One of them – Benda could not really tell them apart – deposited a bit of fresh luminescent seaweed in front of Benda, bowing its head, baring its teeth instructively toward the plant matter, and nodding to Benda. He understood, picked some up, and chewed it. The taste was remarkable, and unlike anything he had eaten before. He felt renewed at once.
“You were saying about Quatria,” reminded Tob.
“Yes,” Benda agreed. He was not sure whether the kumbios understood human speech, but he addressed them each in turn as he went on.
“The giant eagle,” he said, and he flapped his arms to mimic the great bird. The kumbios seemed impressed, and he thought they might understand. “He wants me to reveal the way back to Quatria. Though, I’m certain I don’t know it. If I won’t do what he wants, he’ll use me – my mind – to unlock the way, even if I’m destroyed in the process.”
The kumbios looked at one another, and nodded somberly amongst themselves.
After a time, Tob spoke, “So, we get you to your family. And what happens then? What about your king?” he said. And unthinkingly, he added, “What about the other men seeking you?”
“Other men seeking me?” said Benda. “Who? How do you know this?”
It was then Tob’s turn to tell Benda of his vision, of the eagle with a fish in its talons – which is what had given Tob the idea to try the spell of transformation in the first place (which he was not ready to admit had never worked before). And he told finally of the riders from the east, over the mountains, bearing the red banner of the citadel.
“I don’t like the sound of that,” said Benda.
“Neither do I,” said Tob, with uncharacteristic seriousness. “Neither do I.”
The two kumbios shook their heads in agreement.