Originally Featured Oct 12 in The Weekly Knob·
“You down there, goblin! What are you up to? No good, I’m sure.”
Cal tried to keep the scowl from his face as he walked over the small stone bridge and down the slope. He faced the goblin who had been under the bridge.
The goblin held up a mousetrap with a small piece of cheese on it. “Most goblins, they find cheese they eat it right away. I put cheese on this. I use this to catch mouse.”
The goblin’s smile looked more sinister than friendly, his two large fangs jutting upward.
“I know what a mousetrap is,” Cal said coldly. “Hey, aren’t you the goblin that stole my master’s reading glasses last month? You are, I’m sure of it. What did you want them for, anyway?”
The goblin looked at his feet. “I took them to the goblin king. I show Clank. My glasses better than his. I smarter. He knock me down, take glasses. Now Clank have new glasses. I still dig in dung.”
Cal didn’t understand half of what the goblin was saying. He really hoped the part about digging in dung was a metaphor but had a sinking feeling that goblins didn’t use metaphors.
“Well, you’re lucky you didn’t try to steal any of the valuable stuff. The magic protecting that stuff would have cooked you alive. It was bad enough that you stole the moon pie. I was the one who had to stay up all night to conjure a new pie to replace that one.”
The goblin’s ears perked up. “You master make you do bad job too?”
“Don’t you know it! I’m on my way back from curing Lady Averlan’s toe fungus right now. Guess who had to rub the salve on her feet while chanting the spell?”
“You cure toe fungus?” the goblin asked. He looked down at his boots and then back up at Cal. Cal was suddenly grateful the goblin was wearing boots.
“I do every job the master doesn’t want to do. Oh, I didn’t mind at first. All apprentices do that stuff as part of their payment. We do the things the wizards don’t want to do, and in exchange, they teach us magic so we can become wizards. The problem is, I’ve been an apprentice for four years now. The other apprentices my age have either washed out or become wizards by now. I honestly don’t know if my master is trying to keep me stuck as an apprentice forever, or if he’s too drunk to remember what he’s supposed to be teaching me.”
Cal stopped talking and looked at the goblin, “Why am I telling you all this?”
The goblin shrugged. “Because I listen?”
It was true. Cal couldn’t complain to the apprentices who had washed out; they were worse off than he was. The ones who had become wizards had moved away to start their magic practices. He had a girlfriend but had gotten her by bragging about how rich and powerful he would soon be. Complaining to her was probably the quickest way to lose her. He had no one to talk to, which made his feeling stuck even worse.
“If only I could get my hands on one of the spellbooks in the library,” Cal said, “I would teach myself the spells I need to pass my magic exam and become a full wizard.”
“Why not get book?”
“They’re in the restricted section, kept under guard at all times. I would need something to distract the guards.”
Cal looked the goblin up and down as if suddenly seeing him in a new light. “Hey, how about I teach you some magic?”
The goblin’s ears laid back. “No, I no want magic. You got any cheese? I could use more cheese.”
Cal shook his head. “No, I don’t have cheese. Why do you need it anyway? You’ve already got cheese on your trap.”
“I have more mousetraps,” the goblin said. “No worry, I find use for them.”
“Look, you said something about Clank knocking you down and taking your glasses, right? Well, if you learned magic, you could get revenge.”
The goblin shook his head, “Goblin rule number nine, goblins what use magic get ‘sploded.”
Cal laughed, “Even I haven’t learned how to make anything explode. I just want to teach you how to light a candle so you can take the apprentice exam. If a goblin taking the apprentice exam doesn’t distract the library guards, nothing will. Come back to my master’s tower with me. While I teach you, I’ll make sure you’re well-fed. We have ham, cheese, beef, and even some venison.”
The goblin stuck out his hand. “You have deal. My name Thud.”
Cal looked at the green hand and nodded at the goblin rather than touching it. “I honestly didn’t know goblins had names.”
“Oh, yes!” Thud exclaimed, “Goblin names very interesting. You see…”
Cal cut him off, mid-sentence, “Nevermind all that, let’s get going.”
It turned out, learning magic was dull. Thud sat on a wooden stool, staring at a white candle on a table. Cal sat on another stool, watching Thud stare at the candle. The whole thing seemed ridiculous to Thud.
“Why we do this?” Thud asked.
“The wizard apprentice exam tests how much potential a candidate has by seeing how large of a flame they can create,” Cal explained. “I just need you to create any flame, so the wizards at the exam focus on you.”
“I have swamp moss in pouch, can make huge flame,” Thud said.
Cal shook his head. “The whole point is creating a flame using magic.”
Thud sighed and stared at the candle again. Even if this was a waste of time, his stomach was full for the first time in years. He would put up with a lot of nonsense for a full stomach.
There was a sound of a door opening. The wizard walked out of his room, looking first at Thud and then at his apprentice. “What’s all this?”
Thud crouched, preparing to make a run for the tower door, but Cal laughed and said, “Don’t you remember, master? You asked me to train this goblin for the apprentice exam.”
The wizard sputtered. “I did what?”
“Old Bonewits is in charge of the testing this year, and you said, wouldn’t it be hilarious if that nasty old Bonewits had to give the exam to a goblin?”
The wizard crossed over to a shelf and pulled down a bottle. He tipped it up over his mouth, but it was empty. He tossed it over his shoulder and grabbed another. Liquid poured from this one, and after he had drained it, he wiped his mouth with his sleeve and put it back on the shelf.
“You know, that does sound like something I would say. Nasty old Bonewits has it coming. Very good, carry on. I’m going to go lie down for a bit.”
Cal shook his head as he went, “And that is why I’m still an apprentice after four years. He spends every day drunk as a skunk.”
Thud looked confused. “He no sound drunk or walk drunk.”
Cal replied, “Yes, that’s because of his Highly Functional Robes. No matter how much he drinks, his robes help him appear normal. They even walked him home once after he’d passed out. It was quite a sight, him walking normally and greeting each passerby in between his snores. I’m not sure which wizard invented Highly Functional Robes, but he made a fortune. They’re very popular among all types of academics.”
Thud shook his head at all of this and decided to just focus on the candle again. Humans were strange.
As the days went on, Thud happily settled into his new routine. Thud ate a large breakfast and then stared at the candle. He ate lunch and stared at the candle. Finally, there was dinner and staring at the candle into the night. For Thud, it was the easiest work he’d ever done in his life. The amount of food he was getting for sitting and staring was much more than he got normally through scavenging. He began to see the appeal of the life of an apprentice.
For Cal, on the other hand, the lack of progress was maddening. The apprentice exams were only a few days away. Thud sat, staring at the candle as always, and overheard him talking to his girlfriend.
“Maybe goblins really can’t learn magic,” he said.
“I still don’t understand why you’re spending so much time on this.”
There was a long pause, and then Cal said, “This is the quickest way for me to become a wizard. If I can get him to light that stupid candle, I can become a wizard, and we can finally be together.”
There was a sound of a scuffle, and she said, “That’s enough. You keep your hands to yourself until you get your robe and wizard hat. So, what about the goblin? You become a wizard, and the goblin becomes someone’s apprentice?”
Cal laughed. “A goblin apprentice! No, of course not. Once I’m done with the goblin, I’ll tell the exam committee that he cheated. They’ll probably execute him on the spot.”
There was a sharp intake of breath, “Be careful what you say, he might hear you.”
“Nah,” Cal said, “he’s on the other side of the tower.”
Apparently, humans didn’t realize that a goblin’s big ears weren’t for show. Thud began thinking about what to do. He glanced at the door to the tower, it would be easy to be out the door and gone before Cal returned. But he couldn’t bring himself to do it. There was so much food here. Thud couldn’t go back to catching mice under bridges. Besides, he was sure Clank would have a thing or two to say about him being gone so long. So he would have to figure out how to keep being an apprentice, but not get executed.
Thud hopped down from the wooden stool and walked over to the bookshelf. All the apprentice spellbooks were neatly arranged. For all of Cal’s complaining about his master not giving him any instruction, he hadn’t given Thud any either.
“Just sit and look at the candle until it lights on fire,” Cal had said.
Thud had been perfectly happy to do that as long as he was being fed regularly, but now it wasn’t enough. He opened the first student book and began to read about mana. When Cal’s girlfriend left an hour later, he returned to find Thud staring at the candle. This time, however, there was a small glow at the end of the wick.
“You did it!” Cal exclaimed, “you finally did it. I think this deserves a celebration. I’ll get the moon pie.”
Three days later, Thud was standing in front of the university library with Cal’s master. Several hopefuls had gathered for the wizard apprentice test. The testing committee sat behind a long table on the lawn. In front of them was a small round table with a single candle.
“Applicants step forth and show us your potential,” Bonewits called out. Most of the applicants were girls and boys around twelve. A few were older, having tried and failed in previous years. One by one, they stepped forward and focused on the candle. Thud was amazed to see that only around half of the applicants succeeded. Why would you come to the exam if you didn’t know you would pass? Once again, he didn’t understand humans.
Finally, all the applicants finished and had either been directed to their new masters or sent home.
“Thank you all for coming,” Bonewits started when Cal’s master stepped forward and cleared his throat loudly. Bonewits narrowed his eyes. “Astunthelies, I didn’t expect to see you here.”
“I have one more candidate for you, Bonewits,” Astunthelies said, with a note of excitement in his voice. He shoved Thud forward.
Bonewits paused for a long moment, and then said, “Very funny, Astunthelies. Now, if there isn’t any other business.”
“Oh, I’m quite serious,” Astunthelies said, “if you check the university rules, you’ll see they state any individual may come forward for the wizard apprentice exams. Are you telling me this isn’t an individual?”
As the committee erupted into a loud debate, Cal slipped unnoticed through the side door of the library. He moved through the public area and looked for the guards posted in front of the restricted section. As he had hoped, they were both staring out the window at the apprentice exam.
Cal hurried over to the shelves and began looking through the spellbooks. He found what he was looking for and heard a guard gasp.
“Will you look at that!”
Cal spun, fearing that he had been found out. Through the window, he saw Thud standing in front of the candle. The flame on top of the candle looked like a small bonfire, far outsizing the candle itself.
“How in the…” he bit his tongue mid-sentence. Thankfully, the guards still stared out the window, showing no sign of having heard him. He quickly pulled the spellbook down from the shelf and opened it. He reached into his backpack to get his parchment and quill to copy down the spell.
There was a loud snap, and Cal screamed out in shock.
Outside on the lawn, Astunthelies was patting Thud on the back and congratulating him on his incredible exam performance. Bonewits looked like he had swallowed a sewer rat when Astunthelies addressed him. “I believe the bylaws require you to place him as a wizard’s apprentice right away.”
There was a brief commotion as two university guards led Cal out of the library in handcuffs. Oddly, a mousetrap was hanging from Cal’s fingers. Astunthelies made a face at the sight of his apprentice.
“What do you suppose happened to Cal?” Astunthelies asked out loud.
“Goblin rule number twenty-seven,” Thud said with a grin, “Goblins what let other goblins pack their backpack asking for trouble.”