Upon issuing forth from the cave mouth through which he had escaped the Black Water and Stone Sea below, Benda became immediately drowsy.
The sun shone down on him, and he blinked dumbly to see its rays again. It took several moments for his eyes to adjust to natural light again, and his limbs felt incredibly heavy. The cool breeze rose up from what he could now see was a large body of water not far off. He looked around. The cave opened onto a rocky ledge. And without climbing down, or otherwise exploring further his surroundings, he promptly returned to the cave mouth and dozed off for how long he did not know, half in the shade of the cave, half in the sun’s rays.
He slept the sleep of the dead, but he knew he was not dead, and despite being nearly (or even possibly) turned to stone, he had returned to the land of the living. Or at least one of those lands…
What roused him finally was not the smell of the sea nearby, the crashing of waves, or the cry of the sea birds. It was the strange sound of a flute, horribly out of tune, arythmic, almost broken sounding, which roused him out of slumber.
He stretched, and opened his eyes, rubbed his ears, and his face, his cheeks, and his forehead, blinked once hard, and then again.
“What a horrible racket!” he muttered to himself. Gathering himself, he got up to search for its origin. A thin rocky trail descended the rocky ledge from the cave mouth. As it wound downward, there was revealed a green but scrabbly field, and beyond it a sea which Benda did not recognize immediately.
Round the final bend of his descent, the broken horrid tune grew significantly louder, until stepping out onto the grass, Benda thought he spotted its source. He sensed there was someone behind a boulder of medium height, too tall to easily see over. He crept over to behind where the boulder lay, taking care to stay out of the line of sight of whoever — or whatever — might be on the other side.
Try as he might though, Benda could not surprise the strange but wise little fellow who had sat down there to sit in the shade and play his flute. As Benda approached, from the far side of the boulder the music — if you could really call it music — stopped abruptly, and there was silence. Benda, crouched there, suddenly felt a bit foolish for hiding and stood up.
“Hullo there,” he said over the rock, and strode out around it. But he did not realize, that from the other side, the little fellow had also gotten up to get a look at the visitor who was trying to creep up on him unawares. And so, when each reached the other side, they found it empty.
“Most peculiar,” said the little figure wearing a wide brimmed hat, top slumped to one side. Most peculiar indeed. He held in one of several hands (actually, technically, rootlets) his little reed flute, which he had carved himself from a special type of reed that only grew alongside the Great River. Over his shoulder was slung a simple pack. “Most peculiar indeed.”
“I say,” Benda began, circling back the way he had come. Likewise, the little brown lumpy figure did the same in the opposite direction on his thin stalks-for-legs. Once again, they each found an empty space the other had just vacated. “Hold still!”
The little figure did so, and finally revealed himself bodily to Benda, bowing low in a pretentious and awkward but nonetheless charming manner. Benda couldn’t help but smile ear to ear at this ridiculous creature.
“Tob the Gobble, at your service,” he said, removing his purple hat with a flourish, and using the butt end of his flute to simulate the cane of a gentleman.
“Benda, at yours,” he said.
Returning his cap to his brown lumpy head, Tob remarked, “Just Benda?”
Benda shook his head, “Just Benda.”
“Hmm! Then, Benda the Just we’ll call you! Everyone needs a second name, don’t you agree?”
“I’ve had too many,” Benda admitted, still smiling at the peculiar little fellow. “Now I’m just me.”
“What’s one more for good measure?” the gobble said, twirling around merrily. “Hmm, that reminds me of a song,” he began, holding up his flute to what seemed to pass for a mouth on the little creature. He exhaled into the instrument with a strange sort of hooofting sound.
“Please, let’s just… talk for a while first,” Benda interrupted him, hoping to break off another long horrible peculiar little tune like that which had roused him from his sleep and brought him to this place.
Tob seemed to eye him from the many small root buds which speckled the surface of his hard-looking skin, and lowered his flute. “Music critic, eh? I see. What about jokes? Got any good ones? Don’t worry, I’ve got quite a few! Let’s see…”
“I’m sorry,” Benda said. “I’m sure they’re quite funny, and I don’t mean to be rude, but I’m not really much in the mood for joking or music. I’ve lost my friends, and I don’t know where even really I am. I’m just trying to get home to see my family again.”
“Tough crowd,” Tob quipped. “Let’s see then, a tale! A tell all! Whoohoo!”
Benda groaned, he realized, audibly. But Tob didn’t seem to notice or care, and just went right on going.
“A tale it is then. It’s settled. It’s been a while. Let’s see… I’ll tell you a tale, not a tall tale, but not quite a small tale — let’s call it a little bit more than ‘little.’ A little bit (much) like me. In fact, it’s my tale, and I’ll give it to you, and then you, dear friend, can regale me with yours.”
“This sounds like it might take a while. Is there somewhere we might sit down?” Benda asked. “Somewhere out of the sun?” He looked up again at the sky, nervously beginning to remember the prying eyes from above, the eagle and shape-shifter Murta who had hunted him and his party like prey, driving them under-ground.
“Why, yes! I know just the place, Benda the Just, for just such a tale! Hooray! Follow me!” And off he went, playing his flute and dancing as they walked, stop only once briefly to interject, “A song for a walk, I always say! Hey, hey!”
Near the edge of the sea, where the rock ledge jutted out, they rounded a bend, and there was a grove of low trees. Benda sheltered down in it, out of the sun, and braced himself for what he suspected might be a rather long-winded tale from his peculiar, yet oddly charming new friend, Tob the Gobble.