by Robert E. Keller
Farmer Sneedon stood on the river bank and eyed the barrel with great interest, wondering if this was his lucky day. It looked stout--made of some type of white wood bound in iron, with strange markings burned into it. His fishing pole lay wiggling at his feet, its line in the river. But Farmer Sneedon couldn’t have cared less if a fish had taken the bait or not. All he could see was the unusual barrel that had just drifted down the river and washed up on the sandy shore.
“Can’t understand how it opens,” he muttered to himself, running his hands over the smooth wood and metal. At last he seized a rock and began smashing it down on the barrel, his eyes smoldering with determination. But he couldn’t seem to even scratch it.
He was startled by a sudden noise like grinding metal, and the barrel’s side split open to reveal a small, bearded man amid gears and levers. Farmer Sneedon leapt back, his eyes wide, the rock slipping from his fingers.
“Well, hello there!” he said in shock.
The little man stepped out of the barrel, grinning. He was an ugly midget. His bearded face was lined and wrinkled, his hook nose excessively long. His eyes were dark, like pools that revealed nothing except a mischievous glint, and his teeth were large and yellow. His red hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and like his beard, it was a series of tiny braids. He wore a plain brown tunic and brown trousers, and a leather belt with an oversized silver buckle encircled his waist. His black leather boots split in two at the ends like cloven hoofs. A broad, sheathed dagger with a rune-covered, silver hilt hung from his belt.
He bowed. “I am Gatheon Mudoolis, traveler from distant lands. And you are...?” His breath smelled of whiskey.
Farmer Sneedon blinked, still overcome with surprise. “I’m a farmer. Um . . . Sneedon, that is. Nate Sneedon. Nice to meet you.” Clumsily, he extended his hand.
The midget shook it. “They call me a barrel rider, Mr. Sneedon. And can you guess why that might be?” He chuckled, then cleared his throat. “Anyway, I’m from inside the Gold Dust Belt, where people are smaller. I’m seeking to make my fame and fortune among the large folk.”
Farmer Sneedon shook his head. “It’s not possible. No travels through the Gold Dust Belt. It’s poisonous to breathe.” The Gold Dust Belt was a ring of vapor hundreds of miles long and at least three miles thick at any point. It was said to be of magical origin and of unknown purpose, created when the world was very young.
Gatheon pointed at his barrel, his chin held high with pride. “She’s airtight when I want her to be, Mr. Sneedon. Only a barrel rider like myself can travel through the Gold Dust Belt and live. Got just enough air in there to make it through–maybe even a little to spare. And we small folk can hold our breaths for a long time.” His eyes gleamed with delight. “My barrel can even travel upriver, against the strongest current.”
Farmer Sneedon was impressed, but still baffled and taken aback. “I’ve never heard of any little folk,” he said. He pondered for a moment. “Well, there are legends of gnomes living inside the Belt. But those are just children’s stories.”
“Indeed,” said Gatheon, waving his chubby hand dismissively. “You large people have such silly legends. I’m a man like you, Mr. Sneedon. Just smaller. Nothing magical about me–except for maybe my charm.” He laughed. “Anyway, I didn’t mean to startle you. If you don’t mind, I’m kind of hungry and I’d like some dinner. I’m a hard worker.” He eyed the farmer’s basket of fish and licked his lips.
“Huh?” said Farmer Sneedon, still trying to sort out the situation in his mind. He wiped sweat from his thin, weathered face. It wasn’t every day that strange little men popped out of barrels. “Sure, you can help with a few chores after dinner, and sleep in the guest room. Won’t be a problem. I often let travelers stay at the farm in exchange for work. And I need some help catching up on things today.”
Gatheon smiled warmly and extended his hand. Farmer Sneedon noticed it was just as calloused as his own, which meant the little man was probably indeed a hard worker. He shook it, thinking the midget wasn’t such a bad fellow. He had a lot of questions he wanted to ask, but he decided to wait until later, lest he scare the traveler away.
“Thank you so much, my good, good man!” said Gatheon. “I’ll do all I can to make it worth your while. First, I must hide my barrel in the woods. Please wait here for me, as no one can know its location.”
“You can bring it to the farm,” said Sneedon. “It should be safe enough there.”
Gatheon shook his head several times. “No, no, no. That wouldn’t do at all. We little folk always hide our barrels, preferably near rivers. Plain and simple. No one must find it! It’s nothing against you personally. It’s just our way of doing things.”
“All right,” said Farmer Sneedon, with a shrug. The little fellow was odd, but pleasant enough. He had a certain charm about him that made him very likable. Farmer Sneedon felt this traveler would prove to be excellent company.
After Gatheon had carried his barrel off into the woods and then returned empty handed, Sneedon gathered his fishing gear and the two set off for the farm. As they walked, they spoke little, but questions kept building in Sneedon’s mind. If the midget did indeed come from inside the Gold Dust Belt--a land that no human could visit--the farmer wanted to know all about it. Yet he held his tongue, determined to wait on his inquires until the little man smelled some cooking food and was less likely to get offended.
The farm was small, containing a horse, a few cows, about two dozen chickens, a goat, a barn, and a two-story house. They followed the road out of the woods, through a corn field, and into a muddy yard. Farmer’s Sneedon’s wife, Tamella, stood on the front porch, an uncertain smile on her lips as they approached.
Farmer Sneedon started to introduce his new companion, when Gatheon brushed past him, raced over, and planted a kiss on Tamella’s hand. “My beautiful lady,” Gatheon said. “I am more than pleased to be at your beck and call.”
Tamella smiled in surprise and delight. She had been very pretty once, but like her husband, she was in her late forties, and farm life had taken its toll on her. She retained most of the blond color in her lush, curly hair, though.“Well aren’t you a charming little fellow! And where did you find such a gentleman, my husband?”
Farmer Sneedon explained what had happened.
Tamella’s eyes were wide. “What an unusual story. But you’re certainly not from around here. Your fine manners alone are enough to tell me that.”
They went inside. While Tamella fried up the fish, Farmer Sneedon tried to strike up a conversation with Gatheon, seeking to learn about his homeland and people. But the little man seemed suddenly distracted, and gave vague answers that the farmer didn’t find satisfying in the least. Finally, the farmer fell silent, deciding Gatheon was probably just hungry and would loosen his tongue after he’d had some fried fish--or else Gatheon really wasn’t from inside the Gold Dust Belt, which was the most likely scenario.
Gatheon kept his gaze fixed on Tamella, acting as if Farmer Sneedon wasn’t there. The farmer started to comment on the weather, but Gatheon interrupted him. “Beautiful lady,” he said softly, “the smell of your cooking is intoxicating.”
Farmer Sneedon nodded. “Yes, my wife is indeed a good--”
“And you have a lovely home, Mrs. Sneedon,” Gatheon continued.
The farmer cleared his throat. “So how long will you be--”
“Do you have any children, Mrs. Sneedon?”
“A grown son and daughter,” said Tamella. “Both are married with children of their own. What about you, Mr. Mudoolis? Do you have any children?”
“Gobbled up,” Gatheon said.
Tamella wheeled about from the stove, her face pale. “Excuse me?”
“That fish will soon be gobbled up. I’m so hungry you just wouldn’t believe it.”
Tamella laughed nervously. “Well, hang in there. It won’t be long.”
Gatheon produced a big flask from his tunic and sipped it heartily. He smacked his lips. “Stout stuff. Been sipping it for the past three hours off and on. Takes the edge off my hunger.” He took another hearty swig.
“So you ride the rivers in a...barrel?” Tamella said. “Where is it?”
Gatheon’s eyes narrowed. “In a safe place. In the woods.” A sly look crossed his face. “No one will ever find it beneath the bird’s watchful eye.” He hiccuped. “Anyway, I’m talking too much. Happens when I sip whiskey.”
As the three sat down for dinner, Farmer Sneedon started to say a prayer. But before he finished speaking, Gatheon had bitten a fish completely in two and was chewing fiercely to get it down. He grunted as he chewed, and sweat dripped from his forehead. Crumbs from the breading hung in his beard. At one point, he made a gagging noise as if choking on a bone. Alarmed, Tamella quickly poured him some water, but he refused it with a frown and a wave of his hand. He made the gagging noise again and then swallowed.
“Are you okay?” Farmer Sneedon asked.
Gatheon ignored him. “The fish is delicious, my lady. Splendid! We little people can handle fish bones. We’ve got a worm in our bellies that grinds them up. Even the scales are no problem for us.”
Farmer Sneedon felt queasy. “A worm, you say?”
“Not like an earthworm,” said Gatheon, his eyes still fixed on Tamella. “Just a slimy little device that looks like a worm. It’s a handy little organ, because we eat our fish raw--scales, head, guts, and all.” He chuckled and patted his belly. “I like them when they’re still twitching.”
Farmer Sneedon shook his head in disgust and amazement. Tamella suddenly didn’t seem interested in her dinner.
After Gatheon had eaten his fill, he watched Tamella with a burning gaze as she wiped down the stove, put away leftovers, and collected the dishes. When she reached for his plate, he seized her arm and caressed it. “Lovely,” Gatheon whispered. He touched her hair. “And those golden locks are delightful.”
Her face reddened, and she pulled away.
His own face flushing with anger, Farmer Sneedon stood up quickly. “All right now, Mr. Mudoolis. They’ll be no more touching my wife, or you’ll have to move on. Is that understood? I think perhaps you’ve had a bit too much of that whiskey!”
“My apologies,” Gatheon said, still focused on Tamella. “Your beauty is just so inspiring, my lady. Why, I could tackle you right now and smother you in tender kisses.”
Farmer Sneedon’s mouth dropped open. “Now that’s enough of that talk! I think you’ll have to find lodging somewhere else tonight.”
“Nonsense,” Tamella said. “He’s just being polite, my husband.”
“I wouldn’t call that polite,” Farmer Sneedon growled. “I don’t know how your people talk to men’s wives, Mr. Mudoolis, but in this land we’re taught to show respect.”
“I can teach you respect, farmer,” Gatheon said sullenly, his eyes narrowing. The smell of whiskey was strong on his breath.
“What did you say?” Farmer Sneedon asked, leaning over the table with a menacing look on his face. He was nearing his breaking point, and was considering grabbing the little man by his collar and marching him off down the road. But then he noticed that Gatheon’s hand was resting on the hilt of his broad dagger and he thought better of it.
“I said I know about respect,” said Gatheon. “At least, what my people taught me. And we’re taught that women are wonderful creatures, to be cherished--and loved...right and proper.”
“Right and proper?” said Farmer Sneedon. “Is that so?”
Gatheon nodded. “As it should be.”
“Get on down the road!” Farmer Sneedon shouted, slamming his fist on the table. “I’ve had about enough of your--”
“Husband!” Tamella snapped. “That’s enough. He’s from a different culture. And I insist that we allow him to stay for the night.”
“I’ll sleep in the barn,” Gatheon said. “I won’t bother anyone.”
“You’ll do no such thing,” said Tamella. “You can sleep in the guest room, and not in any barn like an animal.”
“Thank you so much. You are truly kind hearted.”
“That’s not going to happen,” said Farmer Sneedon. “I should boot you off my farm, but I see my wife is determined to undermine my authority. So be it. You can sleep in the barn, and then leave in the morning. It’s that or nothing.”
“I’ll take it,” Gatheon said, jumping up from his chair. And with that, he wished them well, bowed, and left the house.
Farmer Sneedon glared at his wife. “Now look what you’ve done. Clearly, that little man is a lowlife wretch. He’s probably a liar, too. That was probably nothing more than a fancy ale barrel he was riding in. He undoubtedly stole it from somewhere.”
Tamella nodded. “I agree. But let’s use some common sense. Do we really want to anger him? You saw that huge knife he was carrying.”
Grudgingly, Farmer Sneedon nodded. “Yes, I saw it. Hopefully he’ll get so drunk off his booze that he’ll pass out in the barn and sleep until morning. Maybe then he’ll move on. If he knows what’s good for him, he will!”
“I’m going out for a walk,” said Tamella. “I feel a little wound up right now. I’ll be back in an hour or so.”
“All right,” Farmer Sneedon said. “I’ve got to do some chores, and I intend to keep a close eye on our little guest.”
The evening passed uneventfully, and Gatheon Mudoolis stayed put in the barn. He didn’t help with any chores, but Farmer Sneedon didn’t care as long as the midget stayed out of sight. It seemed no further trouble would result from the little man’s presence.
But sometime during the night, with a bright moon shining down, Farmer Sneedon awoke to the frantic whinnying of his horse. Clearly, the animal was in great distress. His cows and goat also seemed agitated--but the horse was absolutely panicked. He hurriedly put on his clothes and boots, while Tamella watched him with a tense expression.
The whinnying stopped abruptly, as if choked off. The cows continued mooing.
“Wait here,” he told her. “I’ll see what that little wretch is up to.”
“Be careful!” she said.
Farmer Sneedon raced downstairs, his heart pounding hard. He grabbed a lantern and a hatchet from by the stove and headed out to the barn. When he got inside, he let out a gasp. Gatheon had cleared a small patch of earth and lit a fire. Lying next to the fire was the bloody carcass of Sneedon’s horse. Its head was missing, and some of its meat was roasting over the flames. Gatheon was nowhere to be seen.
For an instant, Farmer Sneedon couldn’t bring himself to move, so great was his fear. Obviously, the little man was a lunatic, and he could be hiding anywhere in the shadows. The farmer glanced about, his knuckles white as he gripped the hatchet. The cows and goat were okay, but still shifting about in their stalls and making distressed sounds.
“Come...come out, Mr. Mudoolis,” he said. “You’ve killed my beloved horse, and I can’t let you get away with it.” No sound greeted Sneedon’s ears.
Rage overcoming his terror. Farmer Sneedon searched the barn. There were a lot of potential hiding places, and his search took him several minutes. As he shined his lantern behind some hay bales, he let out a whimper. The horse’s head lay on the ground, surrounded by three lit candles. A strange symbol had been painted in blood on its forehead, and an unrolled scroll with more symbols lay nearby along with a pile of reddish ash.
Farmer Sneedon could make no sense of what he saw--other than to guess that Gatheon had been trying to work some kind of magic spell. Since the farmer didn’t believe in such things, he was more concerned about Gatheon being utterly insane.
Farmer Sneedon heard a hiss, and glancing up, he saw a pair of crimson eyes glaring at him from the shadows. He raised his hatchet as a warning. “I have you now, Mr. Mudoolis!” he cried. “Give yourself up, or face this hatchet!” A voice in the back of Farmer Sneedon’s mind warned him that Gatheon’s eyes should not be glowing like coals--that something monstrous was watching from the darkness.
The watcher leapt down from a stack of crates and into the lantern light, revealing a short, fat, impish creature that looked almost like a naked doll made of reddish wood. It had an oversized, blocky head with round crimson eyes; a wide, drooling, toothless mouth; two tiny bat wings that grew out of its shoulders and appeared useless as far as flight was concerned, and long fingers that tapered into fine, sharp points. It looked like someone’s detailed carving of a cherub from hell. The mere sight of it caused Farmer Sneedon’s stomach to boil with horror and disgust, and he was frozen in place.
Snarling, the creature leapt at Farmer Sneedon, swiping at him with its fingers. With a cry, he brought up his arms defensively to protect his face. The slashing, pointy fingers shredded his tunic sleeves and tore open the flesh underneath. Desperately, he shoved the creature away from him. It rolled head over heels, making creaking noises, before landing upright with a jerky, puppet-like motion.
As the enraged imp threw itself forward to attack again, Farmer Sneedon swung the hatchet. Somehow, he landed a perfectly timed, very lucky blow on the creature’s forehead, splitting it open like a block of oak. Screeching in agony, the imp flopped around and then disintegrated into a pile of crimson ash.
“Tamella!” Farmer Sneedon cried, and he raced for the house. As he ran through the yard, he could hear his wife screaming upstairs. In his haste, he tripped over a stray piece of firewood and landed hard on his belly, skinning his knee. Utterly winded, he lay gasping for breath. His desperation had surged into pure panic.
At last he managed to get up, and he flung himself through the front door and dashed upstairs--to find the bedroom door locked from within.
“Help me!” Tamella screamed. “He’s in here with me!”
Farmer Sneedon slammed his hatchet against the door, chopping through the lock and then smashing it open with his shoulder. He charged into the room, his face twisted in a killing rage. But Gatheon had already fled through the upstairs window.
Tamella sat on the edge of the bed, looking more calm now than she should have been. “He’s gone,” she said. “I’m okay. He cut away a lock of my hair.”
“He killed Mallie,” said Farmer Sneedon, referring to their horse. He clutched his forehead and shuddered. “And...and he summoned some kind of horrible monster in the barn. I think it’s dead now.”
“You’re bleeding,” Tamella said.
“It’s nothing too serious. But...” Sneedon shook his head. “How can this be? The thing in the barn was pure evil! It must have been a demon of some sort. I have to go find him, before he does more damage. But I fear leaving you alone again.”
“He has left the farm,” Tamella said. “He told me he’s a gnome out searching for a wife. They come from within the Gold Dust Belt in search of women. They take great pride in capturing human females for their brides. He said that he would take my lock of hair back to his people to show their village wizard, and in six days a winged shadow would come for me and carry me off--and that no one could stop it.”
Farmer Sneedon trembled. “If that’s true, then I have to go catch him and kill him before he escapes in that barrel!”
Tamella shook her head. “Do not fear, my husband. He won’t escape. When I took my walk earlier, I moved his barrel to another hiding place, and I assure you he won’t be able to find it.”
“But how did you know where it was?” the farmer asked.
“It was easy,” she said. “He spoke of having hidden it beneath the bird’s watchful eye. That was a big mistake. The drunken fool! I remembered a stone statue of an owl in the woods, which I used to lay beneath when I was a child. Sure enough, I found his barrel at the foot of that statue, surrounded by boulders and oaks.”
“But he commands magic,” said Farmer Sneedon, trembling. “He must have summoned that imp in the barn to kill me. When he finds out what you’ve done, he’ll return with rage in his heart. He’ll kill both of us!”
“No, he won’t,” Tamella said calmly. “He won’t dare. He stands to lose the most precious thing in the world to him--something he cannot return home without. He’ll give back that lock of hair before all is said and done.”
Not long after that, Gatheon did return, charging up the stairs with his dagger drawn. “I’ll cut you both into pieces,” he snarled, storming into their bedroom. His dagger glowed with a crimson hue, radiating from a substance like fiery blood that ran through dark veins that webbed its surface. The veins seemed to pulse with life. It was an ugly weapon that spoke of smoldering caverns and ancient sorcery.
The farmer and his wife sat on the edge of the bed. Tamella looked relaxed, but Farmer Sneedom was beside himself. He leapt off the bed, taking position to defend his wife.
“I’d like that lock of hair returned to me,” said Tamella.
“And I’d like my barrel returned to me,” said Gatheon. “Do you know how old I am? I’ve lived for over three-hundred years and never had a human as a bride. You’re going to return what is rightfully mine, and you will be my wife!”
Farmer Sneedon raised his hatchet. “You killed my horse. And that monster of yours nearly killed me. You won’t get away with it!”
With a sneer, Gatheon pointed the glowing dagger at Farmer Sneedon. “I could cut through you like parchment, human swine. My dagger will burn your flesh like flame from a forge and suck away your life force. Now where is my barrel?”
Tamella held out her hand. “My lock of hair, gnome.”
The dark pools that were Gatheon’s eyes glinted with pure malice. “You humans are weak, and the men of your kind are worthless. Yet you, my lady...” He licked his lips. “You are so beautiful. Why do you resist? Wouldn’t you like to come to my land, to see wonders beyond your imagination and live for ages and ages? Come, leave this miserable farmer and be my bride. Or stay here in a pale land, grow old, and die.”
Tamella’s jaw was set firm. “As I said, I want that lock of hair.”
“And you’ll never get it,” Gatheon vowed. “We gnomes are stubborn. We cannot be fooled, or intimidated. I will have what I’ve come for.”
“You’ll never have my wife!” Farmer Sneedon howled.
“This is your last chance, Mr. Mudoolis,” Tamella said coldly. “You will either return that lock of hair now and get out, or I swear unto my grave that you will never, ever, find out where I’ve hidden your precious barrel. Is that clear?”
Gatheon opened his mouth to protest, then grudgingly nodded. He muttered something under his breath, then flung the lock of hair at her.
“I want all of it,” she said, her eyes icy. “Your last chance.”
Hurriedly, Gatheon reached into his pocket and pulled out more hair. He threw it at her. “Take it all, then! But tell me where you’ve hidden it.”
“You must swear never to return here,” Tamella said. “That you will leave us in peace.”
Gatheon hesitated, gritting his teeth.
“Swear it right and proper!” she commanded. “And I know how a gnome is supposed to give his word. I also know a gnome’s word is unbreakable. I read it in a book once, while lying beneath a certain stone owl in the woods--the same owl that betrayed you.”
“I swear it on my father’s forge to leave you in peace,” Gatheon said sullenly, bowing his head in defeat. “Now where is it?”
"I dragged it back here," she said. "It’s behind the chicken coup, covered in a pile of straw, mud, and chicken droppings. I’m sure it smells wonderful."
Without a word, Gatheon Mudoolis sheathed his dagger and left.
Farmer Sneedon gazed at his wife in amazement. “You knew he was going to give in to your demands. But how?”
“It is simple, my husband,” Tamella said, smiling. “I had him over a barrel.”
Robert Keller says: I've always loved fantasy fiction, and I grew up on traditional works like those of J.R.R Tolkien and Terry Brooks. I live in Northern Michigan surrounded by lots of forests, lakes, and rivers--all of which help inspire many of my story settings. I've been writing a lot lately, and I'm hoping 2009 will be a very productive year.
What advice do you have for other fantasy writers?
My advice for other fantasy writers is to never forget that "magic" is what makes fantasy great. Magic is what sets fantasy apart from other genres, and it's important to really try to bring that to life in a story, to inspire longing within the reader to live in the world you create.