Hearing the rattle of a coach arriving, the old wizard hobbled toward the table, his staff thumping on the worn wooden floor of the cottage. He eased himself down into a tattered chair with a soft groan as his apprentice burst through the door.

Waving a folded paper, she called out, “Master Adamson! A message from Melazia province. The coachman says it’s urgent.”

“Alright Gretchen, slow down. Tell me what it says.”

The girl broke the seal and scanned the letter. “It is from Lord Technan, High Priest of — ”

“Yes, yes,” the wizard interrupted. “I know who he is. What does he want?”

The apprentice scanned the page. “He bids you come in haste. Their court wizard has died. They face an incursion by trolls. The coach is here to convey you hence.”

“Quite sad. I had heard about Densley’s passing. Good man. A poor wizard, but a good man.”

“Master? The trolls?”

“Oh, yes. What tribe are they?”

“The letter doesn’t say. There is a description. Yellow eyes. Gray fur except black down the spine. Long ears they attach copper bangles to. They carry short clubs with rocks tied to the end.”

“So, what tribe would that be? Quick now, go get your book.”

Gretchen dashed to her alcove, returning with a huge volume and setting it on the table, being careful to avoid the stains from spilled potions. “I think it’s the Gelnau,” she said, flipping through the pages. “Yes, here it is.”

“Nasty bunch. You have the manner of repelling them recorded?”

“Right here, Master.” She pointed to the illustrated instructions.

“You copied it fair?”

“You approved my copy six months ago. Here is your mark,” she said, pointing.

The old man squinted at the page, then nodded. “Oh yes. Hmm. Yes, I did.” He hoisted himself out of the chair, a slow process accompanied by grunts, with a stop in the middle for some labored breathing. He shuffled toward a bookshelf, stopping after a few steps. He swayed, requiring the staff to keep himself upright.

“Gretchen, fetch my book. The large blue one. Put it in the travel trunk. Add any others you think may be of use. I will gather some clothes.”

“Master, are you well enough to travel?”

“The need is urgent. You have never seen what a troll incursion can do. I pray you never will. Lord Technan is helpless with Densley dead.” He started towards a side room, then halted and turned back to his apprentice. “You need to be clear. It is our duty. We are the ones with knowledge. We are the ones with responsibility. Others must be able to count on us in their need.”

The apprentice set about her task, making careful choices among the many volumes. Twice she was interrupted by the sound of rattling coughs coming from the side room.

The wizard came out, dragging a small bag. He checked the trunk’s contents and nodded. “You have made a good selection.” He began to close the lid.

Gretchen put up her hands to stop the wizard. “Master, you are ill. You have been for months. You cannot go. The road to Melazia is terrible. The journey will be too hard on you.”

The coachman appeared at the door. “Sir I beseech you come soon. Our province is in great danger.”

“I am coming,” said the old man. “Put this trunk in your coach.”

Gretchen stood in front him, blocking his path. “Master you cannot go. I will not allow you. I will go and face the trolls.”

“No, no. Trolls are dangerous. If you fail to complete the task, they will kill you. If you make a mistake, they will kill you. If they divine your intent before you even begin, they will kill you.”

“Master, I am ready. You know that.” She stood straight, as tall as she could make herself. “You said it is our duty. It is my duty.”

The wizard wheezed into a chair. Nodding with resignation, he replied, “You are right. I will not survive the trip. Another dead wizard will do Lord Technan no good. You must go in my stead.” He looked up at her. “Replace my book in the trunk with yours, then go gather your things. I will write a letter to explain.”

Gretchen went off to pack while the wizard drew out a paper and a quill. ‘Lord Technan,’ he wrote. ‘I send to you your new court wizard. She has passed all of my tests, including the test of courage. She will be worth more to you than her predecessor.’ He addressed and sealed the note.

After the trunk and Gretchen’s bag were loaded on the coach, she climbed aboard. “Master, I will make you proud of me and will return soon.”

“If Lord Technan bids you stay, then you must do so. You will have earned your place in his court.”

“But I have so much more to learn.”

“As do we all. You are ready. Farewell. Write to me of your adventures.”

The coach departed and was soon out of sight. The old wizard stood up straight, stretched his back, and took a deep, clear breath. It would take a while to work out the kinks left from months of pretending to be a decrepit old man — the cost of sending forth a new wizard in his usual fashion. He looked over at his fishing pole. A week casting along the stream sounded good. Then he would venture out to find a new apprentice.

Wayne Martin is a retired physicist, currently teaching high school mathematics in Maryland. He also volunteers with a local environmental group, The Arundel Rivers Federation. He lives in Annapolis with his wife and two dogs. For recreation, he races sailboats. His work has previously been published in Abyss and Apex Magazine.