Better Days: A Short Story

(This was my first attempt at writing secondary-world fantasy, rather than SF or magic realism, just to see if I could do the genre…)

The sun had hardly begun to poke above the horizon when Surlan was woken from his sleep by a boot nudging him in the ribs.

“Wake up you lazy fool! We haven’t got all day! The market starts in three hours, and there are pigs to load onto the cart,” his master said, as Surlan spat the straw out of his mouth and pulled himself to his feet, his muscles still aching from the last night’s exertions.

Surlan remained silent, knowing that whatever he said would risk his master’s aggression, and made his way over to the pigpen, taking a deep breath as he did, then holding his breath as he opened the door. The stench was still overpowering, but by taking few and shallow breaths once the door was opened, all through his nose, he managed at least to avoid getting the taste of the air into his mouth and spending the rest of the day trying to spit it out.

The pigs were more recalcitrant than usual, and Surlan suspected they knew that the journey would not have a pleasant ending for them, but with a great deal of effort on his part and squealing on theirs, he managed to load them onto the cart before his master completed his breakfast, and climbed into the back with them to keep them calm on the journey, while his master took the reins.

The journey to the market in the great city of Larkster was a long one, almost two hours, and Surlan could feel every bump in the road in his bones. To pass the time Surlan entertained himself by playing his pipe, an old melody he remembered his mother singing to him as a child. “Oh sing my love of Erundel, of lords and ladies fair/Of those who can foretell their fate, and those who do not dare/Oh sing my love of gardens, and sing of better days/Oh sing my love of Erundel, the land where fortune lays”

Erundel is all very well, thought Surlan, but I’m never going to see it, am I? I’ll spend the rest of my days covered in pig-shit. Still, he continued to play the melody, and to imagine the gardens, and the fortune-tellers within them.

When they got to the market, Surlan’s master immediately went to the nearest tavern, leaving Surlan as always to do the actual work of unloading the pigs into the pen, and of trying to sell them to the unimpressed customers. Surlan’s master had always resented feeding his pigs, or his gnome-servant, giving them the bare minimum to stay alive. In the case of Surlan, that didn’t matter — nobody cared if a gnome was too thin (at least, nobody who anybody cared about), but in the case of the pigs that was a different matter. Nobody wanted to buy a skinny pig, but while Surlan’s master knew that as a matter of fact, it didn’t make him any more likely to feed the pigs, and Surlan suspected that when his master came back, drunk and having spent all his money, he would be furious at Surlan’s inability to sell the half-starved animals.

Reflecting on this, he let his mind drift off into the miserable anticipation of future punishment which is the perennial state of the goblin-servant’s mind, only pulling himself out of his misery when he heard one of the pigs squeal behind him in an outraged tone.

Turning round, he saw a tall, grey-bearded man putting a knife into his pocket, and blood dripping from one of the pigs, where the man had stuck the knife to see how much fat was on the pig’s body.

“What did you hurt the pig for?” he asked, sounding almost as outraged as the pig had been.

“I think I hurt her a great deal less than she has been hurt by your neglect, young goblin,” said the man. “Have you even fed her this week?”

“Were it up to me, sir, these pigs would be the fattest and best looked-after on the market,” replied Surlan, hurt at the implication that he was at fault. “Tis my master who decides what to feed them, not I.”

“Then perhaps it is your master, and not the pig, I should have stuck with my knife?”

“I wouldn’t like to say, sir.”

“No, but your face says very well. What’s your name, young goblin?”

“Surlan, sir.”

“No last name? No, I suppose your master wouldn’t have given you one, any more than he gives you shoes for your feet. Well, I’m Marunel, and I am very pleased to meet you.”

The old man held out his hand, and Surlan looked at it, confused.

“You’re supposed to shake it.”

Surlan took the hand in his own, and shook it from side to side.

“That’ll do, I suppose,” laughed Marunel.

“Marunel… that’s an Erundel name, isn’t it?” asked Surlan.

“It’s not a name, more of a title, but yes, I’m from Erundel. How did you know that?”

“Oh, my mother used to tell me stories about Erundel, about how the magicians there can see their own futures, and how if you look in the Moream river you can see your whole life laid before you, from birth to death, but that as soon as you look up from it you forget it all, and…”

“Aye. Aye, I suppose she did, looking at you. You’re of the Beloddin tribe, from the looks of things. Lots of them in Erundel, and no doubt they stay in contact with their fellows.”

“Those of us who are allowed, sir. Since my bondday, I haven’t been allowed to speak to any other goblins.”

Marunel looked thoughtful for a moment. “Tell me, Surlan, do you like your work?”

Surlan laughed. “You don’t like work, sir! That’s why it’s called work, and why men have goblins to do it for them!”

“I thought as much. In that case, how would you like to work for a wizard instead of for a pig farmer?”

“A wizard? That could never happen. There are no wizards in Larkshire!”

The grey man raised his knife, still dripping with the pig’s blood, above his head, and from it came a glow that rivalled the sun, even though it was midday.

“There are now.”

#

Surlan had been apprenticed to Marunel for almost a week before he asked the question he’d been worrying about every night.

They were sat by the side of a river, and Surlan was throwing pebbles into the water, listening to them splash, and breathing in the smell from Marunel’s pipe. The old man looked relaxed for the first time since they had met, the stern look gone from his face, and so Surlan managed to gather together enough courage to speak.

“Master?”

“Yes, Surlan?”

“When are you going to have me do some work?”

“What do you mean?”

“You have shown me how to hold a knife, and how to gather herbs, and how to tell the mushroom that allows men to visit the heavens from the mushroom that will make you throw up all night. But you haven’t had me do any work! I thought I was to be your goblin-servant?”

“Oh you are! But I can cut my own toenails and build my own fire. I don’t need you for such trivialities. If I wanted someone to fetch and carry, I’d call up a spirit. They’d do it more quickly than you, and wouldn’t eat half my food.”

“So what do you need me for?”

“I don’t need you. But I want you to help me with my work.”

“What work is that, master?”

“I want you to help me die.”

“Die, master? You want to die?”

“I don’t want to die, but I don’t have much choice in the matter. I’m grown old, and my body is weary, even though my mind is as active as ever. I shall die, and you shall take my place.”

“Take your place? How can I take your place? You are an old man, and I a young goblin. You are you, and I am me.”

“That is not important. What is important is that you pay attention in your lessons, and you learn the difference between deathswort and lovebane. One will add flavour to your beer, and the other…”

“Less tasty?”

“Let’s just say no-one has ever had any complaints about its taste.”

And with that, Marunel was silent again, and Surlan returned to throwing pebbles in the river, looking at the ripples spreading to the shore, and the smaller ripples they made returning to the site where the pebble had landed.

#

“This one?”

“The ox.”

“And how do you say it?”

“Ao.”

“Very good. And this one?”

“The plough.”

“And how do you say it?”

“Nnn.”

“So when you put them all together, they say?”

“S… u… rlaonn… Surlan! It’s my name! How does the paper know my name?”

“Because I put those marks on it. The paper knows your name because I know it, just as you know how to read it because I knew how. I’m putting my mark on you, slowly, too.”

#

The old man and the young goblin travelled for many weeks, and Marunel shared his knowledge with Surlan as they travelled. Surlan’s feet became calloused from the walking, but his legs grew stronger, and his chest filled out, as he finally had a master who would give him enough food, not just to live, but to thrive.

And Surlan was thriving not just physically, but mentally. Marunel gave him lessons every day, on the habits of the birds, and the uses of plants, and then finally, as they were walking by the banks of a stream, he taught him the most important secret of all.

“Do you wish to know how we do it, we of Erundel? How we perform our magics? How we predict the future?”

“More than anything. I could wish for nothing more!”

“Oh, I’m sure you could, and no doubt will. No man — or goblin — is ever satisfied with what he has. He always wants just one thing more. No — don’t look disheartened. That’s a good thing. The day we decide that we have enough is the day we start to die. One must always want more, or one starts to settle for less every day, and soon one is settled in the grave. Give me your hand.”

Surlan held his hand out, obediently.

Marunel touched it, and Surlan felt as if a wave had washed over him, crushing him with its weight. He gasped for breath, Marunel let go, and the pressure vanished. Surlan wheezed, struggling to suck in the cool, clean, air.

“That was the no-time. The land of Erundel itself stands outside of time, and those of us who know the ways of the land can use the no-time in which the land sits to change things. Not all in Erundel can do so, but those of us who have the gift, as you have, can make the world very different. Look at your reflection, for example.”

Surlan looked into the stream, obediently, and gasped. And so did the young, strong, man whose reflection Surlan saw in place of his own.

“Do not be alarmed. ‘Tis only a glamour. Your own magic is sustaining it now, and it might be advisable for you to do so. Erundel is a better land than Larkster, but it is still a land of men, and goblins may be tolerated, but they are not loved.”

And Surlan wept, to know that even in the great land he had dreamed of since hearing his mother’s song, he could never be himself. But he contented himself with the knowledge that his new master was, at least kinder than the old one. That might be enough.

#

The city of Erundel, when they finally arrived, was everything Surlan’s mother had told of in her songs. The streets were wide and filled with people, but they were smiling and content, not the sour-faced denizens of Larkster. The town smelled of bread — every baker had his windows open, and the smell was enough to make Surlan salivate, for while he was now well fed, he remembered in his bones what it was like to be hungry. And everywhere there were trees and flowers, and it seemed to Surlan as if the whole town was made of music. This was what contentment felt like, he realised. This was what it meant to have a home.

Surlan’s new home was a room above a shop, where Marunel plied his trade. The sign on the door said “Erakoi and Son, Wizardry and Enchantment”.

“Master, why does the sign say ‘Erakoi and Son’, when you are Marunel?”

“As I said, Marunel is a title, not my name. It means ‘blessed one’, and it’s a term of respect. It’s what they call all the highest wizards, though I am the only wizard of that level at present.”

“So are you Erakoi or his son then?”

“Neither. The shop was called that long before I was apprenticed to my master, who said it was called that before he was apprenticed to his. None now know who Erakoi was, but the name stays as a mark of respect.”

Life settled into a simple routine for Surlan, who Marunel introduced to each customer as his apprentice, and who was then allowed to deal with those customers on their subsequent visits. Most of their problems were the same — they wanted a hair-growth charm, or a love potion, or the health of a loved one to be restored — and these Surlan could supply from the bottles full of liquids whose contents Marunel had shown him how to mix.

But sometimes there were the special customers, those who wanted to know the future. Only those with the sight — the sight which Marunel had granted Surlan with the touch that also granted him his glamour — could tell true fortunes, and to do so they had to look in the Erunethe river, whose bank ran past the back of Marunel’s shop. One with the sight could look into that river, and see the future, and speak it to those who asked, but the second the seer looked up, they would forget what they had seen.

In all too many cases, those whose fortunes Marunel told had walked away before he lifted his head. Many soon died, and not all of natural causes. The first time this happened, Marunel was almost willing to give up magic forever; by the tenth, his heart had hardened.

But one who never asked for his fortune was Marunel, who apparently knew that his death would arrive soon. A few months after they arrived in Erundel, Marunel took to his bed, and remained there, growing frailer by the day.

One day, Marunel called Surlan to his side, and whispered “Let me show you who you have been serving.”

He waved his hand, and there in the bed, instead of an old man, was a wizened, decrepit, goblin, so wrinkled it was almost impossible to believe anything that old could live. And then the goblin waved his hand, and Marunel was there instead.

“You see now why I chose you as my apprentice. You reminded me so much of myself. We goblins have to hide ourselves, but we can still do much good in the world. I want you to remember that. The shop is yours now, and you will have to help the people of Erundel. Take care of them.”

And with that, the old goblin died. Surlan sustained his glamour until he was buried, so the people of the city would not know the truth. Marunel deserved that much.

#

And Surlan did help the people of Erundel, and saw them grow old, and die, and their children take their places, because goblins live a long time when they are well fed and not kept as servants, and wizards also have long lives, so a goblin wizard will have a longer life than most. But age and infirmity come to us all, eventually, and after seventy years Surlan knew that soon the time would come for his own death. He needed to make preparations, so he went down to the Erunethe river, to look in, because while he would forget what he saw there, he might still glean an idea of how he should prepare. He looked in, and saw his own reflection.

“Ah. Of course.”

Surlan looked up from the river, already forgetting what he had seen there, but knowing what he had to do. He had to return to Larkshire, the land where he’d grown up. Erundel was his home, but it was not the only home he had. Before he died, he had to see the land of his birth again, and maybe revisit some of those places he had visited with Marunel, in happier times as a youth.

So he left Erundel, and the Caves of Wonder, and he left the Moream river, and after many weeks’ journey he found himself in Larkshire again.

It had changed a lot since he was a boy. Everything was grubbier, and duller. The people were smaller, and the little hamlets he passed had become run down to the point that they were little more than a few collections of mud huts. He recognised nothing, and began to think it was a mistake ever to leave Erundel.

He had almost decided to turn back when he came to another town, little more than a crossroads with a tavern and a market. And there he saw a young goblin boy, tending the skinniest, most wretched-looking pigs he had ever seen. He took out his knife, and stuck it in one of the pigs, to see if it had any fat at all. The pig squealed, and the goblin turned around.

“What did you hurt the pig for?” the young goblin asked, his face contorted with anger and shock.

“I think I hurt her a great deal less than she has been hurt by your neglect, young goblin,” replied Surlan. “Have you even fed her this week?”

“Were it up to me, sir, these pigs would be the fattest and best looked-after on the market,” replied the goblin. “Tis my master who decides what to feed them, not I.”

“Then perhaps it is your master, and not the pig, I should have stuck with my knife?”

“I wouldn’t like to say, sir.”

“No, but your face says very well. What’s your name, young goblin?”

“Surlan, sir.”

“No last name? No, I suppose your master wouldn’t have given you one, any more than he gives you shoes for your feet. Well, I’m Marunel, and I am very pleased to meet you.”

And Surlan the goblin, who was now the man known as Marunel, smiled at the boy who was to be his new apprentice, and thought to himself about the better days that lay ahead for him.

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10 Responses to Better Days: A Short Story

  1. plok says:

    Stinking goblins, coming to steal our wizarding jobs…!

    As always, your short fiction is nice and brisk and readable and surprisingly affecting for what it is! Always the insistence on the humane, it must be the Pratchett in you. I wish I had that unconscious knack.

    I do think you undercut your big twist, a bit. That moment at the river does it: you shouldn’t let us know anything there! And surely the time every wizard looks in the water for himself is at the death of his Master, at the moment when grief overwhelms fear?

    Sorry, you didn’t ask for criticism!

    It’s a nice little thing, though, in my opinion.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      No, you’re right — I sent this to a few magazines and got comments about the lack of pacing, and I suspect that was what they were talking about…

  2. Bother, Andrew just when *I’m* se;;ing out and aiming work at the the Pratchett void….
    I think I like yours better than mine…

  3. Mike Taylor says:

    The interchangeable use of “gnome” and “goblin” bothered me. There are many different secondary worlds with different races and race-name usages, of course, but I am used to those words meaning two distinctly different humanoids.

  4. Mike Taylor says:

    Oh, and the name Surlan … I couldn’t figure out why it was bothering me. Then I realised it’s because I was thinking of Servalan from Blake’s 7.

    Yes, these are pithering little criticisms. I am mentioning them in case you’re looking to tweak the story for a second draft.

    By favourite bit so far: the very short and efficient account of the reading lesson, which tells us all we need to know in 84 words and throws in a bit of character development. That’s quality.

  5. Mike Taylor says:

    “… and maybe revisit some of those places he had visited with Marunel, in happier times as a youth.”

    The reference to happier times seems wrong, since (as far as we know) Surlan and Maronel were together in Larkshire only when Surlan was first apprenticed, a time of confusion more than contentment.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Thanks for all these. This one, though, was deliberate — people always tend, as they get older, to look back at their youth and see things as simpler and better than they were.

  6. Mike Taylor says:

    And finally, the ending — while neat — is longer than it needs to be. The punchline is apparent some time before we get there, and you could shorten the journey.

    Those quibbles aside, really nice work. I enjoyed reading it, and would happily read more in the same vein.

  7. Mike Taylor says:

    (One more comment, since I think I forgot to check the ” Notify me of new comments via email” box, and there is inexplicably no way to sign up for notifications without commenting.)

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