It was nearly noon when Benda arrived on the edges of his home village of Stennax, which he had not seen in over three years. A storm-at-sea had driven his fishing vessel with his fellow countrymen Tendar and Offend onto the strange shores of the lost and largely forgotten land of Quatria. There, the river of time took a course all her own, and an entirely different one from that of the Wide Lands and Kremel. For him, his sojourn there, and his perilous voyage back to Kremel, and finally to his home kingdom of Cannaxus had seemed to take no more than a few months. But he was keenly aware that for those he’d left behind, the pace of time had flowed with a quickness which for him it had not.

As such, despite his joy at returning, he was filled with trepidation upon entering the outskirts of his village, and seeing the few wattle and daub huts that began to line the cart path. He felt painfully aware too of the strangeness of his appearance, dressed in the garb of foresters of the northern Drynarean kingdom. And if his reflection in the surface of Lake Squamat had shown him anything, it was that he looked ragged and thin, with a scraggly unkempt appearance of one who had been on the road for a long, long time.

He noticed as he went along that the villagers who saw him all avoided eye contact, and somehow this made him feel ashamed – like a stranger in his own home. Tob, before entering the village proper had, perhaps wisely, suggested Benda hide him again in the folds of his cloak. For though Benda might only seem a stranger to this people of Stennax, Tob truly would appear like a wholly alien being.

The few villagers he did see scurried about their business. Benda thought they seemed nervous, and he wondered at what had happened in the intervening time since he left to make them so. He remember them as proud, certainly, but also filled with warmth. But then, perhaps that was because they had regarded him then as one of them, whereas the people who saw this bedraggled wraith walking through the village most certainly did not.

He brushed it aside though, and turned off the main path, and along a series of branching trails down through to the lower part of the village, nearer the sea. He saw there as he went some children play-fighting with sticks. Among them was a small boy, no more than a toddler, who upon seeing Benda froze completely still, and stared. Until one of the older boys whacked him across the back with a stick, startling him awake, and all the children ran off again together to some other part of the village. Benda estimated the boy to be approximately the same age as his own son, Sol, according to the passage of time in this place. But he had not seen him since he was a baby, and he pressed on.

At last, he rounded the final bend to where his family’s hut was, constructed decades ago by his father. As he approached, he felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up. He strangely felt, at the very last moment, the urge to flee. But to where? This was everything he’d striven for all the while on this long voyage. So he strode up to the door, which was closed, and knocked on it.

He felt strange knocking on the door of his own house, but if his wife Lualla had lived on her own without him all these long years, he didn’t want to scare her by simply walking in like a ghost out of the wilderness. As he stood there waiting, he ran his fingers through his uncombed hair nervously. Would she recognize him? Would she still love him, and accept him as her husband?

After what seemed like an endless moment, the door swung gently inward, and a woman’s voice – Lualla’s – said softly, “Come in.” His heart leapt to his throat, and in his excitement, Benda pushed aside the strange note of warning he thought he heard in her voice, and he passed through the threshold into the dark interior.

His eyes adjusted to the dimly lit space within, and as he did, across the room, he saw her there, beautiful as they day they wed. She turned from the fire she was cooking over, and cried out in recognition, “Husband!”

Benda rushed to embrace her, but she threw her arms up in warning, shouting, “Run!”

The door swung shut behind Benda, though, and as he went to sweep his wife up into his arms, strong hands seized each of his arms from behind. He struggled and, turning his head this way and that, was confronted by two gruff armor-clad men, who held him fast. Over their coats of mail were red cloths bearing the insignia of the Citadel, and the First King of Kremel.

Lualla sobbed and went to caress his cheek, “Forgive me, Benda! I had no choice.”

“Welcome home, sailor!” one of the soldiers said roughly, and clubbed him in the back of the head. Benda fell once again into unconsciousness.