The air in the storeroom was thick with odors when Pudlong pushed open the heavy door and stepped inside. In his right hand he carried a sturdy metal mug, and as he stood in the open doorway he took the liberty of drawing a hard pull from its contents. He then wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his left arm as he carefully surveyed the dimly lit room. Dust specks lazily spiraled upward in the slanted light from the single, high window. Once he was satisfied that he had seen what the small warehouse had to offer, Pudlong drew himself up to his full height of sixteen hands and let out a belch.
A more reflective man might have pondered the wonderful quirks of life as he picked his way through the casks, sacks, and crates that littered the warehouse floor. Pudlong’s sudden rise to position in the southern province of Mandraka certainly gave pause to many of his peers, and indeed to many of his betters. But Pudlong himself was not a man to engage in undue reflection. He pushed and shoved his way through the dusty items stored in the keep’s smallest storeroom as he made his way to the wall at the far end of the long, narrow room. He took pains to ensure that the beverage in his mug was not spilt, even stopping several times to drink down the level when it came close to sloshing. Once he reached the far wall he carefully kicked an opening in the clutter, and shoved a crate against the wall. He retrieved an old blanket from the floor where it had lain since he had last visited this sanctuary, and draped it over t he crate. Then he sat down and took another drink.
It would be incorrect to say that Pudlong had enjoyed growing up a peasant. The life of a dirt farmer was hard, and the idea that there was a better life occurred to Pudlong and his wife many times as they scratched at the soil of their bean farm. But both were simple folk, and their concept of ease tended to run mainly toward warmer weather and fewer weeds. The avenues of Pudlong’s mind were straight and short, and lined with green trees, grassy knolls, and the plain homes of friends and family. When a magic beanstalk seized Pudlong by the metaphorical seat of his homespun pants and dragged him into public prominence, his simple concepts of success followed. The magical power that the beanstalk granted him had been temporary, meant to last but a season. As Pudlong was a farmer, that meant a growing season. By fall Pudlong was as magical as the fields of dirt he used to plow. His master, Lord Farley, had already elevated him to the local office of high mage, however, and so that was where Pudlong had stayed.
Having arranged his seat, Pudlong leaned his back up against the wall and relaxed. He took a swig from the hefty flagon, and knit his heavy brows together on his forehead. He stared down the length of the dim warehouse, dully examining the shelves and mounds and piles of old magical wares. The previous occupant of his high office had been a mighty mage in deed and name, and had asked that this room be set aside to store the provisions needed by the province’s fledgling magi. The apprentices in the keep had dragged all their surplus magical supplies into this room, but had not really organized it. That had been years ago and the clutter in the room had been steadily added to, not reduced. As titular head of that corps, Pudlong was looked up to as leader and guide. The lead apprentice had long ago assumed the role of teacher, after the former master’s passing, so Pudlong was only expected to act as a shepherd, not sage. Pudlong was comfortable with this role. In so many ways, tending young magicians was not so much different than herding goats.
A more learned man might have felt a tremor or two of unease in the storeroom. Some of the crates were clearly marked with symbols urging caution in their handling in general, and their opening in particular. In the far corner, under a heavy pile of blankets and protective amulets, a collection of especially virulent items were housed. But Pudlong had only recently been introduced to the concept of reading, and even then had only made a passing acquaintance with it. He was ignorant of the exact contents of most of the containers in the warehouse, and in fact probably wouldn’t have cared had he known.
A more educated man might even have been tempted by the legends emblazoned in the wood of the casks and boxes around him. There was power in the room. Someone more in tune with the ethereal aspects of nature might have tread lightly entering it, but Pudlong wasn’t sensitive in that regard. His ears and eyes were trained to detect a different sort of magic: the magic of growth and sun, of hard work and joyful laughter. Pudlong needed no road to fame and fortune. He knew his place in the world; his place was wherever Lord Farley put him. Farley had made him high mage, and so that was what Pudlong was, regardless of whether he actually knew what a high mage was or did. Life changed around Pudlong, but Pudlong himself stayed the same. With Lord Farley above him, and heaven above Lord Farley, Pudlong was nestled cozily in the smothering weight of custom and duty. He was right where he belonged.
The thick stein was half full now to Pudlong’s practiced eye. His lips parted to allow displaced gas to escape. His eyes were heavily lidded, and his shoulders were slowly rounding as the ease of the brew filtered through Pudlong’s frame. He had finished his daily inspection rounds, checking to be sure that the apprentices were working, that they had enough of whatever they needed, and that their offices were neat. The lead apprentice had accompanied him, as always. Pudlong was fond of him. The lad was very helpful, and always deferential, in a helpful sort of way, like a good herd dog that understands the sheep better than even the shepherd does. Pudlong had then run his daily errands for Thully, his wife. Thully had really taken to life in the keep. In many ways she was more urbane than Pudlong would ever be, fitting quite neatly into the local circles of gossip and fellowship. She was currently in the adjoining room doing laundry, leaving Pudlong to tackle the “problem” of the warehouse, a task he felt he was handling more than adequately.
A flicker of movement caught Pudlong’s eye as he took another drink. Over the lip of the mug he saw something tiny scaling the side of a cask immediately in front of him. He let the arm with the flagon fall into his lap and he slowly cranked one eyebrow up his wide forehead. The thing was small, smaller than a rat, but moved slower than a rat. It was colored vivid green and gold, and didn’t quite seem to fit into the dusty motif of the warehouse. Pudlong gathered up his ambition and leaned forward, squinting at the sight.
It looked like a tiny man. As Pudlong watched, the creature reached the lip of the barrel and scrambled over, tumbling down onto the lid with an almost imperceptible thump. It got up and dusted itself off and strutted to the center of the small wooden circle. Pudlong’s lips flapped as he let off a surprised burp. The little person turned to him and raised its little arms.
“Hail, o mighty Pudlong!” it squeaked. Pudlong saw that his initial idea that it was dressed in green and gold wasn’t quite right. It, or rather he, was actually quite naked, with hair of shining gold, bright green skin, and brown, hairy feet. It was just larger than his thumb, with a surprisingly loud, high-pitched voice and bottomless black eyes. It was not proportioned as an adult human, but flattened like a dwarf. It faced him with arms raised and continued its speech.
“I am come to bring you good news, o Pudlong!” Pudlong’s eyebrows lowered over half-closed eyes, and he pushed out his lips in a slight, almost puzzled frown as the man went on. “You are favored by the realm of the spirits, and have been chosen to be a vessel of power and glory!”
Pudlong pushed back off his knees and settled back against the wall, taking another drink, his heavy gaze never leaving the man. His left arm fell to lie limp in his lap, his right holding the mug to his lips. The diminutive herald didn’t seem to care.
“The spirits of this place have chosen to grant you the power to fulfill your wishes and desires,” the little man continued. “We have seen your simplicity, and have decided to give you the desires of your heart. Whatever you wish will come true! You can become whatever you want to become!”
Pudlong nodded to himself and raised one drowsy eyebrow, his expression slack, his gaze unfocused.
“Think of it,” the mite said, turning to pace back and forth. “Everything you have ever wanted.” Pudlong seemed to consider this. His expression became almost thoughtful, musing. The small orator seemed to pick up on this and spread his hands modestly. “You need do nothing at all, save for a small ceremony which we will describe to you. One simple act of acceptance, and your wishes come true.” The sprite walked to the edge of the cask and leaned on the lip, his chin coming even with the rim. “Think what you could do with such power! Think of how far you could go! You are the high mage. What is preventing you from becoming duke? Or even king!?”
Pudlong said nothing, taking a swallow from his cup, then wiping his mouth on his damp left sleeve. He never took his eyes off the apparition. The little man spun away, turning to face the long, gloomy warehouse, gesturing out at the objects stored in the narrow room. His voice began to change subtly, seeming to grow and fragment, almost as if many voices were speaking, some thin and reedy, others dark and deep, coming from far away.
“The world awaits you! All that this civilization has to offer we can give you, if you accept this offer! The will of the magics in this place has been focused on you, sending me as a message to you. We can give you power! We can give you long life! We can grant you revenge on those who have wronged you! We can give you the love of beautiful women, and the fear of powerful men! If you do as we bid, we will make you ruler of all you see, possessor of all you desire! No more to toil, no more to do as others demand! Do as we direct, and you will answer to no one else after today! We will lift you up on high! We will make you strong!”
Pudlong lifted the mug to his lips and drained the last from it. Then, with one smooth motion, he brought the heavy metal stein down on the little man with a smack. A brief squeak was followed by a tiny flash like lightning and a puff of smoke. Pudlong squinted his eyes and tilted the stein up carefully. Of the little man there was no trace, save a black smudge of soot on the cask and on the bottom of the stein.
“Thully!” Pudlong bellowed.
“Ayess, luv?” Her voice drifted in from the adjoining room.
“‘mind me ta mix up a batch of that rat poiz’n!” he hollered back to her, the slur of the drink not really harming his thick southern brogue. “We’ve got varmints agin!”
“Ayup,” she called back.
Pudlong lowered the mug down onto the cask and leaned back against the wall, arms crossed on his chest. He paused a moment on the way down and exclaimed a loud belch, then settled back, closed his eyes, and after a long moment of meditation and careful consideration, began to snore.