I have been a member of the Fantasy Faction forum for getting on for five years now and one of the best things about the community has been the writing contest – it’s only 1500 words so come give it a go! Contest winners were posted on the website but that hasn’t happened for a while, so I’ve been asked to fill in. It’s an honour to do so, and here is another winner.
The theme for the competition when this story won was “Prejudice” and the story is “The Baker’s Apprentice” by by L.C. Cunningham (Jake Baelish on the forums). To read more of his work, check out his short story anthology The Witch of Lichley Lane.
“And don’t let me see you here again,” Granny barked, broom in hand. The boys scuttled out of the bakery like cockroaches, chuckling past the window. Pom could hear them prancing off outside, “Pom, Pom, the baker’s son…” and the rest, until their voices faded into the unseen streets. He dropped on his stool, let out a heavy sigh.
Granny placed her brush by the door. “Sorry I took so long, love. Had something –someone anyway – to pick up. Youngster, found in one of them old goblin caves out by Brakken. Reckon he’ll come in handy.”
Great… Last thing he wanted was some brat to look after. Granny called outside, “Come on in Gleb. Come say hello. Come on, don’t be shy.”
Gleb? What kind of stupid name was Gleb? Pom braced himself for the worst: Snotty. Smelly. Dumb. Dirty. Hopefully not all at once. Whoever came on in, he’d just have to grin and bear it.
And in they came. His effort of a grin disintegrated. Anything, he thought – he’d prepared for anything – and was still unpleasantly surprised.
Gleb was a goblin.
“Well…” Granny urged, “say hello, Gleb. This is Pom. Remember? The one I told you about?”
The ugly little thing stared at the floor between its knobbly, bent legs. “Hello Pom.”
Pom shot off his stool. “Granny, you brought a goblin to our shop!”
Granny’s face hardened. Not a look you wanted to see. “Yes, Pom. Yes, I did. And he will remain here as long as I say. How rude of you to have not even greeted him yet. Say hello, Pom. Say it now, please.”
Its head remained bowed. Its scruffy black hair at least hiding its ugly green face. “Hello,” Pom muttered.
“Hello Gleb,” said Granny. “Right, I’m off to have a lie down. You two take care of things this afternoon. Pom, see to it that Gleb can make himself useful. Gleb, make yourself at home and do as you’re told.”
Granny headed to the back, Pom stomped after her.
“Pom?” Granny had just dropped into her sofa and was glowering at him. “Are you just going to leave him alone back there?”
“He’s a goblin, Granny!”
“Really? Can’t say I’d noticed.”
Pom stalled, eyebrows stitched together moronically.
Granny rolled her eyes. “Oh, well, it hadn’t completely escaped my notice.”
“It’s not funny. The customers won’t like it.” His face burned at being made fun of, especially by Granny.
“I’m sure it will take some getting used to. Was there anything else obvious you’d like to tell me? You can lend him some of your clothes, he’ll grow into them.”
“He’s not staying!”
“Isn’t he? Do you decide who stays and who doesn’t now?”
“He’s a goblin!”
“A very lonely goblin at the minute, I’d wager. Yes, Gleb is a goblin. And you were a street urchin, once. Many a shop would’ve thrown you out as soon as look at you. And look at you now. A petulant, slightly spoilt but otherwise upstanding young baker, and as fine an assistant as I could ask for.” Pom’s posture stiffened at that, chin raised a little, but he clung to his anger – couldn’t let her win him over that easily. “And perhaps our friend back there can be the same.”
“But, he’s a goblin.”
A sigh. Not necessarily the best sign, but certainly in the right direction. “Alright. And if he bites anyone then we’ll see what we can do. Just help me with this, at least for today, please.”
It was all he needed.
Back in the shop, Pom found his new apprentice sniffing at some of the bread in the shelves. “Stop that!”
Gleb started and bonked the shelf above. “Ow!” He turned, rubbing his sore head, giving Pom a full view of that turned up nose – like a pig’s, Pom thought – and a gawping mouth of small but sharp crooked teeth.
“Don’t touch the food, you’ll make it dirty. And here, put these on.” He threw one of his oldest tunics at the creature, then gaped in horror as the thing made to take off its loincloth right then and there. “Behind the counter, for mercy’s sake!”
The tunic hung hopelessly loose but it would have to do. Pom started tying it round the waist with a bit of leather, close enough to smell the thing.
“It’s itchy,” Gleb complained.
“What? Would you rather go without?”
“It would be less itchy.”
He began tying a rough knot. “Well, you may run around as such where you’re from, but we are civilised here, so shut up moaning about it and try being grateful. You stink, too.” He stepped back and made a show of sucking air, though if he was honest the creature didn’t smell all that bad.
Gleb sniffed at his armpits. “I don’t smell anything. You don’t smell either.”
“That’s cause I’m not a goblin. Right, wash your hands.”
“Do all goblins smell?”
“How many have you smelled?”
Pom frowned. “Well, you are the first; and last, hopefully.”
“So how do you know what other goblins smell like?”
Pom threw a wet towel at him, it slapped soggily in Gleb’s face. “Everybody knows that. When you’re done, take that brush and sweep the floor.”
“What will you do?”
Pom took a seat. “Watch you don’t do anything bad, obviously. You lot can’t be trusted. You clean up, I’ll deal with customers. Understand?”
Gleb took up the brush without argument, Pom scowling at him. A minute into his sweeping he began humming a too familiar tune, then began chanting the words. Pom’s stomach turned. “Pom, Pom, the baker’s son…”
“Where’d you hear that?” Pom snapped.
“Those boys were singing it, when I arrived.”
“Because I don’t like it. That’s why.”
The goblin resumed his work and Pom scowled all the more, invisible daggers stabbing the creature’s stupid head.
This really wasn’t turning out to be his day.
Gleb had just finished sweeping when a father and daughter stepped in. After greeting Pom, Gleb poked his head over the counter. There was a gasp.
“Wait outside, love,” the man said, arm brushing the girl back.
“Pom, get Granny, I’ll fetch the city guard.”
“No!” said Pom.
“Sorry?” the man paused at the door, gaze shifting from the young baker to the docile creature at the counter. “Pom? Care to explain? Where is Granny?”
“Resting. She told me to look after this one.”
The man relaxed. “Poor you. Is it your prisoner?”
Pom sneered. “Granny brought it to take care of for a while. Not for long, if we’re lucky. It’s a favour, for a friend.”
The man raised both eyebrows obscenely, while Gleb just stood looking dumb. “Well, rather you than me! Better watch he doesn’t put people off.”
“That’s what I said! He’s good for doing little jobs though; already had him sweep the place.”
A smile, at last. Granny better appreciate his customer relations! “And a fine job you’ve done, too. Look at you! I remember when you were almost as scruffy as this one yourself. Be running this place soon.” Pom winced a little but held his smile. The man took two loaves and a bun and was on his way. Before they left Pom watched them peer through the window, little girl’s eyes and mouth wide on eyeing Gleb from the safety of the glass.
“Why was the girl scared of me?” Gleb asked. “I didn’t do anything.”
Pom turned, fists clenched. “Because you’re a goblin! A dirty, smelly, nasty, people-eating goblin!”
Gleb looked confused. “I’ve never eaten people… I think.”
“Well you’re still the other things. And we’ve been fighting goblins for years. We’ve always been fighting. Because you stupid, ugly—” he almost said people, “…monsters, are jealous that we are better than you.”
Gleb glanced at his worn clothes, then eyed Pom up and down.
Gleb shrugged. “I don’t know. I won’t hurt you though. What do you want me to do next?”
Pom huffed. “Just, sit down and be quiet.” How he wanted to call Granny and not deal with this nonsense anymore. But he couldn’t let Granny down. Had to show her he could do this.
There were other customers. Some with similar reactions to the first, others calmly accepting that since Pom was fine, it must be safe. Still, Pom seethed at the inconvenience, though Gleb voluntarily swept up whenever someone left crumbs or dirt from the streets.
Near closing time Pom was readying to count up the day’s takings, when he heard that all too familiar song being piped outside: “Pom, Pom the baker’s son…”
He slid off his stool. “Gleb, be careful, some boys are coming and they aren’t nice people.”
Gleb spoke low, eyes glistening. “Are they worse than goblins? Like me?”
Pom’s mouth dropped. “What? No. Yes. I mean… Why would you say that?”
Gleb shrugged, clueless as always.
“Just keep your head down behind the counter and you’ll be alright. Understand?”
The goblin nodded.
Pom grabbed the brush right as the door swung inward.
Three barged in, the ringleader getting in Pom’s face, paying no heed to the broom. “Pom, Pom, the baker’s son, belly as soft as a baker’s bun.” He cackled as if that were the funniest song ever sung and that was the first time he’d ever sung it. “Where’s your granny now, bread boy?”
“Please leave, Torian.”
“Ha! Please? You’ll have to do better than that.” He turned to his goons. “I’m hungry. Lory, Hick, you hungry?” He strutted to the shelf and started fingering the wares. His greasy paws settled on one crusted roll. “This’ll do.”
Pom grabbed his hand. “You have to pay.”
Torian pulled back. “Get him away from me.”
Pom stiffened as Lory and Hick prodded him against the counter.
“So stupid to get pushy over bread.” Torian stuffed the end of the roll in his mouth and ripped a chunk off. His chewing was the most obnoxious thing Pom had ever heard. He resisted the urge to call for Granny, but he couldn’t let them steal it.
“You should pay,” said Pom. “We know who you are.”
Torian stepped up in his face. “Are you threatening me, bread boy?” His breath reeked, even worse than the goblin’s. He spat and a plume of wet crumbs rolled down Pom’s shirt onto the floor.
“Get out,” Pom said. “Get out now!”
Laughing then. Pom tried to hold it together but he felt tears creeping up. “Bastards,” he moaned.
Torian slammed the counter – BANG! “Well, well, well. Looks like our Pom here has started using big boy words.”
Hick snickered. “You broke him, Tor.”
“Ha! I did, didn’t I. Only took us—”
“Leave him alone!” A new voice. Gleb. Oh no…
“What’s that!” Lory pointed across the counter at Gleb. “I’m out of here!” He disappeared through a flap of swinging door, Hick on his heels.
Torian gawped from the goblin to Pom and back again. “What’s going on here? Bloody guards will hear about this!”
And then he was gone too. Pom let out a second heavy sigh of the day. “Well, Gleb, that could’ve gone worse.”
“Want me to clean up?”
Pom grinned. “No. It’s my turn, don’t you think?”
On finishing the sweeping Pom locked the door and dropped into his stool once more.
“I’ve scared a few people today,” said the goblin. “Maybe you were right.”
“Hmm,” Pom started. “Maybe I was wrong.”
“Are you scared of me?”
Pom smiled. “No.”
“Because I know you, I guess.”
Gleb smirked, Pom couldn’t tell if it was friendly or snarky. “Those boys were pretty scared.”
“Ha! Yes, they were. That’s because they are stupid… and nasty.”
Gleb frowned. “Like me?”
Pom felt a rush of shame. Actually, looking into those big round eyes and at that scruffy mop of hair, there might even have been something endearing there all along. “No, not like you, Gleb. You’re alright.”