By now, day had lengthened into evening, and Benda’s stomach was growling. He thought longingly about being back with his family, eating a home-cooked meal. He’d lost track of all time, and place, for that matter. His friends were likely far away from him by now. Yet he had a new and interesting companion, this thing, this… Gobble. He remembered suddenly a few small provisions he had been given by Banarat on leaving the Cloud Spire. A bit of bread, and some dried meat. He rustled through his cloak for the satchel.
“I’m famished,” Benda said aloud as he did so. His hands closed on the magical cup Banarat had given to Eradus, and which Eradus had given to him on their parting in the Place Below. He pulled it out and put it on the ground, and took out too the meager bread and meat, and dropped them into the cup.
“Please, eat,” Benda said, breaking a piece of the bread for himself, and offering another to his peculiar companion.
Tob only looked at him.
“I shouldn’t,” he said, adding with a laugh, “I’m watching my weight.” His many small eyes twinkled.
“Suit yourself,” Benda said, biting off a hunk of meat to chew, as he thought about the stories Tob had just related to him.
“Forgive me for asking,” Benda said after a while. “But this tale of your brother-father, it is… most remarkable. And it has gotten me wondering…”
“I am at your service,” Tob said, with a flourish.
“I, I don’t mean to be rude,” Benda said, taking another piece of dried meat from the cup. He didn’t quite notice it consciously, but there was rather more there than he had thought at first upon filling it. “Aren’t clones, well, a kind of copy?”
Tob twirled about, as if excited.
“The question on your mind, if I am to divine, is: has the poison of the father been poised so upon the son? Is that rather what you’re asking?”
“Er, yes, rather,” Benda replied between mouthfuls.
“Sit back then, and listen friends,” Tob said, gesticulating widely with his arms, as if a large audience were present, his voice falling into his distinctive sing-song style. “For this is the Tale of Tob Gobble, as told by he who knows it best.”
“It happened that the bit of root beneath the boot of the fallen hero Lam was licked up by a dog who had thought he’d seen a glob, something edible on the spot where the fallen hero had laid for several days. When the spell was broken, the dog had got to hoping he’d find some left over scrap not already spoken for. He licked the spot, and took up poor old pre-Tob, and a mouth of dust and pebbles, and not much more. Walking out of the village, he coughed and hacked up his meager meal, depositing the merest sliver of a rootlet back down onto fertile soil.
“I was not aware of it at that time, being hardly a sliver of a being, but my biological function took hold, and I burrowed down, and waited, grew, and put up shoots. One night when Makkarin’s eyes were full and her vision roamed upon the Wide Lands, she saw my leaves nodding at the edge of field and forest. Though she were far away in body, for an instant her awareness touched mine.
“‘Little one,’ she said. ‘However came you here?’ I remembered nothing of the flight of my ancestor Potob from her sack, nor the fight which had claimed the life of my brother-father, Otob. But she could read the story in her fullness from the structure of my cells, and the canals of light which entwined me with those twisted histories. And she could see the poison, still only a small potentiality in me, deposited by the Old One in my brother-father, and passed on unknowingly to me. ‘I cannot heal you of this hurt from this great distance,’ said she. ‘My power here is weak and growing weaker, as my Children begin already to grow forgetful of all that I have taught them.’
“‘I cannot heal you,’ she said. ‘You must take this task upon yourself, and the way will not be easy, and the burden will not be light. All I can give you is knowledge. What I can do is to teach you, to open your eyes with mine. And in so doing, I lay upon you this task, to open those of others, to remind them of all that they’ve forgotten, that they are my beloved children.’
“And so, I felt my eye-fingers awaken in the soil, and my body became full with potent knowledge. As I grew suddenly in self-awareness, and embarrassment over the poison which I could then see deep within me, I realized the magnitude of the gift she had given to me. If I must feed like my brother-father in the darkness, I could do so on her wisdom, drinking deeply from her clear pool. It was a chance he had never had, as he too had been lost and forgotten, and suffered through the poison as it ran its dreadful course. My ears became open, and I felt a tongue and a voice welling up from my heart. And laughter like bells poured out of me, still below the soil. And it drew the curious worms, and bugs, and critters. They came to see what was so funny.
“I began to tell them jokes, clever rhymes, and tall tales. And they laughed, and wiggled, and chittered, each after his own kind and understanding. And they told their friends, and they told theirs, and so on. And each evening they would come to me to hear more. Until one day, the self-same village dog who’d coughed me out some length of time earlier came curious by my leaves, sniffing, and lifted a leg on me, releasing a gentle stream. He left and came back a few hours or days later with a child. Sniffing the spot he had marked, the child came over to examine me, patting my leaves, and gently pulling them to one side whistled, ‘Tubers! Good job, boy!’ he said to the dog, patting him on the head, the dog’s ears folded back contentedly.
“With a stick, he dug me out, while the dog licked himself and scratched absently at various parts of his body, before laying down with a hrumph. I was not large, smaller than I am today by half, but the soil was hard, and the stick kept breaking. But the child persisted, and eventually pulled me out, roots and all, and took me back home to his father, who just so happened to be the hero Lam who had slain the monstrous Otob Gobble, my brother-father.
“When the boy arrived back in the family’s hut, he showed the tuber proudly to his mother, who patted him on the head and praised him. ‘Now get cleaned up for dinner.’ Twisting off my leaves, she made to throw me into the pot of boiling water which hung over an iron rack in the hut’s central fire. I was too stunned to talk or really understand what was happening. But as she was about to toss me in, Lam strode in. Though he had long since given up the hero staff, he put down his own old walking stick by the door, and said to his wife, ‘What’s this then? Tubers? From where?’
“She showed him my little body and leaves. He turned me over and it tickled, but I said nothing. He seemed to eye my leaves suspiciously. ‘Tell me where you plucked this from, boy!’ he told his son, who explained it was just beyond the village a ways, near where the field became the forest. That the dog had found it.
“Lam sniffed me and put me back down on the table. ‘Never seen leaves like this before,’ he said absently. ‘Smells off. Don’t rightly trust it.’ ‘Fine dear, we won’t eat it then,’ his wife said, placating him soothingly.
“The family ate, and fell asleep eventually by the fire. Though I’d somewhat come to like them, for I had never known humans before, and these seemed as good as any, I felt it would be prudent to not be eaten. Perhaps it was only the ancient fear of my grand-brother-father, who had leapt from the sack in aeons past. But, I reasoned, if I was eaten — or worse — how would I serve out my commission which Makkarin had given me, and heal myself of this ancient poison?
“So, summoning strength from the core my being, I sprouted a few small arms and legs. And flailing about a bit at first, managed to orient myself, and initiate a gentle roll, which resulted in me tumbling off the table with a gentle thud. I froze, but no one stirred. And though I was not accustomed to locomotion, I managed in spurts to wiggle myself toward the door. But as I managed to cross the threshold, a huge dark form came up — “
“Oh no,” Benda gasped. “What was it?” Benda, in his immersion in Tob’s tale, had not yet realized that not only was his stomach now full, so too was the magical cup of Banarat, as though he’d eaten nothing from it.
“The dog!” cried Tob, with a wave. “Woof!” he shouted, in over-loud imitation.
Tob continued, “The family awoke with a start. Lam was up in a flash, his stout walking stick in his hand, ready to strike the intruder the dog had alerted them to. But he saw nothing, only the mutt wagging his tale in the doorway. Lam watched him lower his head, and lick the tuber once shyly on the ground. Lam picked me up, not noticing in the dark the limbs I’d grown, and stuffed me in a sack which hung by the door. ‘I’ll deal with this tomorrow. Now you,’ he said to the dog, with authority, ‘Go lay down!’”