Tomorrow Lad and the Blundering Troll

A short story by Ian Lahey

Seven months.
That’s how long he’d been tending to the boiling cauldron. And Gibbin was not sure how long he’d need to continue.
The previous guy hadn’t lasted half as long and the first guy even less. The pay was decent, the food was plenty and the employer, Brazzo the Magnificent, was not so bad. But staring at the fireplace to make sure it never went out had just been too much for the others. Jazanitt, the kid before him, he’d been caught dozing, the fire just a breath away from fizzling out. He had his nose turned bright blue by the enraged magician. Gibbin shrugged. It was an easy job for him. Sure, he could have employed his time differently, getting his own place to stay, finding a girl…but all that could wait, surely.
Here, in the basement of the magician’s tower, he was learning important skills for his future. Maybe he’d be a magician too someday. He had learned so much already. Pity it all had to do with the very simple and menial task of keeping the stuff in the cauldron boiling, but soon, he was certain, he’d get past that bit and learn some more interesting magic.
The door to the basement swung open, a breeze snaked down the stairs and danced with the flames. Gibbin broke away from his own thoughts and made sure the fire was not going to go out.
“Gibbin, my boy!” exclaimed Brazzo, “Tomorrow’s the great day!”
“Really sir?”
“Absolutely.” The wizard descended the steps with his usual grandeur. He was followed by a servant with a stack of wood. “One full year Casimir’s Numinous Elixir of Industrious Displacement has been bubbling away, refining itself. By tomorrow at this time it shall be ready.”
“Oh!” This was the first time the wizard had actually told him what the stuff in the cauldron was. This obviously meant apprenticeship was at hand. “Er… displacement.” Gibbin repeated with a nod, not wanting to sound ignorant.
“Yes,” Brazzo said, then caught Gibbin’s eye and looked away again. “How are we for firewood?”
“Should last the night easily.”
“Well then this is to get us all the way to tomorrow afternoon, a full day from now, exactly.”
“Yes.” Gibbin had a vague idea of what time of day it was, and only caught a glimpse of the sky at random times, when the bedpan was full.
The servant dropped the wood on the floor, rather ungraciously Gibbin thought, and left the room without awaiting for further orders. Brazzo too, turned to leave.
Gibbin took a step forward, as he’d done nearly every time for the past month, always hesitating at the last moment. He wasn’t going to get many more chances though. It was time. “Master?” he said.
“Yes?” Brazzo turned, not missing the occasion to give his cape a flourishing toss.
“When my work here is done…” Gibbin ventured.
“Well then, my lad, you will be free once again, as I will have no more need for you!”
“Aha,”Brazzo’s expression softened, the long white whiskers at the sides of his mouth angled away from the straight beard as the old wizard smiled. “I know that face. You need not worry because after seven months as my loyal servant, always looking after my precious experiment…”
Gibbin smiled as his heart filled once more with hope.
“…I shall pay you as agreed.”
“Minus what I spent to feed you of course. Fatten you, in fact.” He prodded the boy’s stomach with his long, bony finger.
“Now get to work, methinks your nose may change color!”
Gibbin turned and placed another log on the fire.
“And don’t forget to stir the elixir-”
“-every time it bubbles too much. Yes.” Gibbin sighed.
“Very well! Can’t wait for tomorrow!” the wizard applauded and climbed the stairs excitedly.
The rest of the day passed uneventfully. Gibbin stared at the yellow flames, cursing himself for thinking he’d be worth anything more than the servant who had brought in the wood. He shrugged his anger away. He wasn’t planning on letting the fire die out anyway. Who knows what the wizard would have done to him then. With a solemn promise to never let himself be fooled again, he placed enough wood to afford a few hours of sleep and curled up on the cot next to the fire.
He woke perfectly on time, he’d always been able to do that, as if he’d swallowed an hourglass, his mom would say. He put a hefty load of new wood on the ailing fire, used the bedpan and realized it was time to empty it. He gave one stern look at the fire, it was a professional look, between colleagues, and quickly ran upstairs and outside to empty the bedpan.
Brazzo’s tower was built on the seashore, not too far from Bleakham, It was pearly white and shimmered beautifully in the first rays of the morning.
Gibbin allowed himself a few seconds to take in the view before rushing back inside.
The cauldron was bubbling furiously.
Gibbin lunged for the long wooden ladle and gave the liquid a vigorous stir. Three drops of hot liquid flew up and splashed on his finger.
Before even thinking, he had already put the burning finger in his mouth.
He stood there for a while, staring at the cauldron with his finger like that. Slowly he removed it and looked at it. It was reddish and burned only slightly. There was a curious feeling in his mouth. Not a taste, just an aftertaste, which was odd. Oh well, he thought, such a small quantity won’t do anything, there’s a whole cauldron of this stuff. He went back to his cot to sit, trying not to worry too much, and at the same time feeling himself for any sign of the effects of the elixir.
He was still sitting, with his eyes slightly crossed in reflection when the door flew open. A strong breeze came down the stairs and all but extinguished the fire. Gibbin frantically started placing logs into the fireplace to keep it alive.
“Cut the flames! Cut the flames! It is time!” Brazzo came down waving his arms.
Gibbin started pulling logs away. He smothered the flames with ash.
“Come, come my boy, this is a momentous moment indeed! A most timely time!”
“Will you drink the Elixir?”
“Drink? No, child, not drink, I shall savor a few drops. Three to be precise.”
“All of this potion for just three drops?”
“Not any three drops. The first three. The rest of the potion is useless.”
“Oh,” Gibbin took a few steps towards the exit, but his curiosity prevented him from leaving just then. “So what will it do?”
“Can you keep a secret?” Brazzo said, eyeing the cauldron.
“I really don’t know.”
“My specialty are scrolls you see? But I came across one which was not a spell, but a recipe.”
“Casimir’s recipe.”
“Precisely, and Casimir’s known for his immensely potent elixirs and potions.” Brazzo took the ladle gingerly. “And his ridiculously extravagant titles. He is also known for often jumping straight to the ingredients and preparation, while entirely forgetting to put down a description of what the dang stuff does. Anyway it says ‘Elixir’ and ‘Numinous’ and I’m pretty sure it’s one of his good ones.”
“How can you know?”
“He adds ‘Deadly’ to the titles of the bad ones. Deadly bad, Numinous good. I have been dying of curiosity, and you’re making me waste time!” Brazzo had lost his patience. He reached into his robes and produced a small bag of coins. “Here’s your pay. Thank you, now begone!” The wizard grabbed his hand and put the bag in it.
Gibbin turned and started climbing the steps, planning to make a run for it as soon as he was out of sight.
Gibbin’s blood froze.
“I’ll come up with you. I’ll do this later, it isn’t going anywhere and it’s probably too hot.”
The boy stared at the wizard as the old man passed by him, smiling absently.
“I thought you were so eager…” Gibbin muttered.
“I was, but now I’m not. Simple. I’ll let you out properly.”
He walked out of the tower and set himself on the path which led back towards Bleakham. When he turned around the wizard was still smiling and waving. He shrugged.

The town looked the same as always, nothing had changed in seven months. The roads were still dusty, the river still stank, and the people still ran around shrieking “Mountain troll! Mountain troll”.
No, that last bit was new. Alarmed, he hurried towards his home, it was on the opposite side of town, outside the city walls, where his father and mother were so busy loading the cart they barely greeted him.
“Son!” his father said, half out of breath, “help us out, we gotta move!”
“Hi!” his mother added, her face covered by the pile of laundry she was trying to hoist over the side. “Hurry.” That was the end of his welcome. He started loading the cart too.
“What’s going on?” he asked, caught in the excitement.
“Troll, headed this way.”
“Oh no.”
Trolls were giant blundering creatures which were too dumb to do anything else but walk in a straight line, trampling and attacking anything in their way. The only times they’d change direction was when faced with a significantly large obstacle, such as a reinforced wall, a cliff or another troll. In this third instance the change of direction usually happened after a vigorous exchange of insults in Troll language, along the lines of “Me kill you!” “Me kill you more!” “Ugly!” “Ugly you!” which would last until they both forgot where they’d come from in the first place.
A troll headed toward your house simply meant it was time to get a new house. Gibbin redoubled his efforts.
“Too late! Here he comes!” his father shouted. “Go get your sister!”
Gibbin bolted towards the house just as the bald, grey head of the troll became visible over the treetops. His sister was standing on her bed, looking out of the window at the trees.
“He’s kicking the trees down!” Farria was four but had good observation skills.
Gibbin grabbed her hand. “Let’s go!”
“No!” Farria said, shaking herself free. “I wanna stay another day, let’s go tomorrow!”
“Don’t be unreasonable!”
“No!” she screamed again, and ran into the living room.
“Farria!” Gibbin followed her. The room was empty.
There was a smashing sound outside.
He heard his father’s voice hollering over the noise “Gibbin! There’s no time!”
“She’s hiding!”
“Olanna! Pitchfork!” His father’s command to his mother was quick, resolute, and also stupidly hopeless. Gibbin called his sister’s name a couple of times before giving up. He grabbed the first thing that remotely resembled a weapon and ran to try and stop the unstoppable.
He had tears of despair in his eyes as he burst out of the house, holding a knitting iron like a dagger. His father was holding the pitchfork with both hands, but Gibbin could see nothing in front of him. He kept running. Suddenly his dad dropped the tool and leapt to the side with a yelp. A huge thing dropped from the sky and slammed into the ground where the man had been standing a minute ago. Gibbin realized, as he smacked into a huge toe, that it was the troll’s foot. He stabbed it blindly with his knitting iron.
All was silent. Gibbin looked up at the troll. The troll looked down at Gibbin, who was still furiously brandishing the knitting iron, bent into a pretzel.
“Hmm,” the troll grumbled, “hmmm…”
Gibbin closed his eyes tightly.
“Hmm. Do tomorrow this.” it turned around and went back the way it had come.
Gibbin, his mother and father watched incredulously as the creature disappeared into the distance.
“Bye mister bald troll!” Farria piped from the window.
“There she is now,” his father groaned.
His mother went back to the cart .“Well, I suppose the good news is we have a full day to move before he comes back.”
“He may forget where he wanted to go.” Gibbin looked at his burned finger. The redness had faded away. What was the name of that elixir?
“There’s more pressing matter at hand,” his father said cheerfully, “we haven’t seen our son in months and I’m sure he has some exciting tales to tell us about his apprenticeship with Brazzo the Magnificent. We must celebrate!” He put his hand on Gibbin’s shoulder, and his expression changed immediately.
“Although maybe not today,” his father added with a distant smile.
“Dad,” Gibbin said, “something did happen, so I need you not to touch me.”
“Why is that?”
“I have drunk the Elixir of Industrious Displacement.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means I have the power of numinous procrastination, I guess.”
He touched his dad’s nose. “Do you want to listen to my answer now?”

“No, you’ll tell me tomorrow lad…oh shit.”

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