At first light, they weighed anchor to row for Quatria. Though a mast of the second ship was salvageable, the madness was rising with the sun once again to grip Greppo, and he would brook no delays. As they made to depart, however, they made out at a distance near the shore a bedraggled but portly man running from the woods, arms flailing wildly.
“Stop!” Benda demanded of Greppo softly, but firmly. He went to the ship’s rail, and strained his eyes, peering out over the side. “Why, it cannot be! I know this man!” he exclaimed excitedly. “Dear Ofend, friend and fellow fisher of Cannaxus. I thought him lost in the storm-at-sea. We must go to him.”
“We know not these waters nor shores,” replied Greppo gruffly. “And we must act while the element of surprise is still upon us.”
“Must we?” said Mergolech coming up from nearby.
“And could any of this still truly be a surprise?” added Eradus, “I would wager not.”
To which Mergolech added, “Beside, if he be truly a man of Cannaxus and is castaway, it is my duty under the right of kings to take him into my care.”
Greppo nearly growled, but turned away, and shouted out only to the other ship’s deck, “Murta!” He pointed off to the man ashore. “Bring him!” And turning back to the others, “And they we must away.” He stormed off.
Murta then, as eagle, leapt into the air, and in a few graceful beats of his mighty wings was ashore. The man, poor lost Ofend, knew not what manner of beast was upon him, but lost as he was, he did not protest as the giant bird took him up in its talons. It flew back, and deposited the man roughly on the deck by Benda.
There was much embracing, and tearful exchanges between Benda and Ofend, who had grown up together. Naturally, Ofend was also well acquainted with his wife Lualla, and little Sol – though when they had been lost at sea, he was but a baby still. When queried as to what had happened, he could say only he woke up on this beach some few weeks ago, and had survived off wild leaves, roots, and what fish he could manage to catch with his bare hands.
The tearful reunion was, however, cut short and muffled by the commands Greppo let fly to the men-at-arms and rowers of the two ships. They pulled out of the bay, and made for the mainland which lay beyond. They did not have far to go under oar, though, for they soon found themselves in a swift current, which pulled them across the remaining sea to Quatria.
As land eventually came in sight, there was a great promontory with a hill off to their left a ways on still.
“Why, this must be the place of Jyagar,” said Benda, “but she is missing.”
“Or hidden from view,” replied Mergolech. “The legends do say after all that this is a land of illusion and sorcery…”
“If you say so,” said Benda, “I know it only as a place where the truth is sung from every hill and mountaintop, and the joy of it flows through the rivers, and streets, and hearts of the people.”
“Even still,” calculated Eradus, “they must have their defenses, like the people of any other land. Perhaps a strange kind of music, to cloud men’s minds.”
“Perhaps,” said Benda, “but this is not that, or I would sense it. Something else is the matter here…”
They floated on, rowing only occasionally to course-correct for the center of the channel leading into the infamous Bay of Erasure, but otherwise letting the current take them onward. As they reached the halfway point, at which both towers, Jyagar and its sister on the far promontory, Raggath, should both be visible, they saw only empty country, shorelines up to hills, mostly barren and stripped of trees. A few long grasses lingered here and there lazily. There were no towers, or other signs of habitation. Benda began to grow increasingly uneasy, but he did not know what to make of these strange signs.
At that precise moment, from where the tower Raggath should have stood, there flew out a single large blue bird with a hooked neck, folded in for flight. It soared toward and then over their ships entering into the channel, and it disappeared in the direction of where Jyagar should have been. They all watched it silently go. “Hail, heron,” remarked Benda.
As they entered into the Bay of Erasure, Ofend remarked to his friend Benda, “I haven’t forgotten.”
“Forgotten what?” said Benda.
“Anything,” said Ofend.
Benda looked puzzled.
“The Bay, the first time we came here. Our memories were erased.”
“Ah, so they were.” Benda contemplated this.
“And now they are not,” continued Ofend. What if, this Bay is no longer the Bay of Erasure?”
“Or it’s erasing itself,” said Eradus.
Mergolech added, “And we’re next.”
They all knew that there was no turning back Greppo though, not at this juncture. He had gone silent and dark and brooding since they left Gilla, and had scarcely seemed to notice the concerning reports of Benda that things in Quatria had changed – or were even in the midst still of changing.
In due time, the current brought them within easy reach by oar of the docks of the village of Elum, where Benda, Ofend, and their third companion and countryman Tendar had landed quite some time before. With the apparent differences in the flow of time between this land, and that of Kremel, Benda could no longer accurately estimate its passage. Quite some time ago, indeed, he said to himself, looking at the greatly reduced docks of Elum, which at this point seemed to consist only of a single shaky pier. It was not the grand construction he remembered upon their loading the ship to depart from that land previously. Looking off too to what should have been a large thriving village serving the Temple Mount, instead he saw only a few ramshackle huts and a trail that lead off into dust, toward the mountains. The mountains, Benda too remarked, should have been much more visible from here. But they seemed shrunken, and far off to the horizon, almost as if pained and withdrawn.
The kings and their charges disembarked at what they took to be the village of Elum’s dock, with a very small company of men-at-arms. There was nary room for more than a few people to stand on the rickety pier at one time, and by the looks of things, even Greppo did not feel it necessary to make a large show of force in this place. For whom would they put on such a show? The village appeared deserted.
“Maybe it’s not Elum, after all,” said Eradus to Benda. “And we’ve been turned about in all the commotion…”
“Or maybe it’s not Quatria,” said Martis Ovnis, who had come down off the second boat with Murta. Each considered this as a real possibility, but said nothing.
Murta said only, “I’m going to get a look around,” and as an eagle, he flew off.
“We will set up camp here,” said Greppo. He ordered the men-at-arms who had come ashore with them to begin at once strengthening and widening the pier, so that the rest of the soldiers could disembark, and they could unload their provisions without misstep. They used what wood they could salvage from the ships, and would have used the wood of the seemingly abandoned shacks in the village, but Benda forbade them. And Greppo after a silence agreed, ordering some men-at-arms off to gather wood as they could from the brushlands and light forests in the surrounding country.
Machef, who had been silent for a long time, then said to Benda only in the silence of his mind, “I fear the place you knew is no more, my friend.”
“I fear the same,” replied Benda, on the same silent channel of the mindspeaker. He had learned how to feed-back on the canal of light which linked them and reply to Machef in kind. None of the others could hear them (that they knew) either outwardly or inwardly.
“Tomorrow,” said Benda to him in this manner, “We will go to the Temple Mount, and there – I think – find our answers.”
“Let us hope,” replied Machef.
That night, Benda slept together with his family for the first time since he had left Cannaxus to go fishing that fateful day. He knew not how long ago. And despite all the strangeness in which they were enmeshed, he was well and truly happy to be there with them in that moment. Greppo had allowed them to take one of the little dilapidated shacks as their own, while others of the royal troupe took up residence in others. Around them were arrayed others of the men-at-arms who had come down off the boats, and made camp on the naked earth, lighting their fires there, telling their jokes, singing their songs, and drinking. Tob Gobble was off somewhere among them, roving and laughing, listening and learning, exchanging joke for joke and tale for tale, dancing and playing his flute for their – and, of course, for his – amusement. Benda stayed with Lualla and Sol, though, after eating, and the three slept long and deep.
By morning, Murta had not returned. An impromptu council was held of the other remaining kings in the village, along with Benda and Machef, to decide what to do. Benda immediately proposed leading an expedition to the Temple Mount, to look for the Pillar of Song and the High Augur, who he was certain was still there. The motion passed and, of course, Greppo himself insisted on commanding the expedition. Though the madness was still upon him, it had subsided somewhat as even he too could see that things were not as they had expected when they set out from the Citadel of Kremel.
Martis Ovnis, Mergolech, and Machef stayed behind. Eradus and Tob Gobble elected to come. Ofend was named Chief Fisher, and given a cohort of men-at-arms to employ in these arts, while others roved the countryside, and still others worked on the docks, and as supplies began to trickle in, on improving accomodations in the village.
Benda and Greppo, Eradus and Tob set out with two days provisions. Though on foot the Temple Mount should have been no more than a few hours, conditions on the ground appeared to have become variable, and they knew not at all what to expect. They would go out for no more than the day, camp at night if they must, and if they found nothing, return straight back to camp.
Lualla kissed Benda goodbye, “Come home to me this time.”
“I will,” he promised, and meant it.
Machef to Benda silently, “Call if you have need.”
Benda only nodded, and they set out.