Cooper sat in the storage room. He was taking a moment’s respite under the dark and dank gloom, sitting atop one of the many towers of wooden kegs that lined the walls. The stuffy air smelt of stale ale and the ceiling dripped with moisture that puddled on the floor, nourishing the mould that doubled as a carpet. The room was cold, uncomfortable, dull and drab, and the heavy thuds of footsteps and the low drone of music beat down from above—but, for that moment, it was paradise to Cooper, and he let his mind wander in peace.
“Cooper!” shouted a voice from above, followed by three heavy boot stomps. “Hurry it up down there! The taps are spittin’ foam!”
He eyed the keg closest to him, the thought of carrying it weighing heavily on his mind. But, he begrudgingly hopped down from his barrel throne and, with a long, drawn-out sigh, he heaved the keg onto his back and made his way up the stairs and back onto the tavern floor.
“Took you long enough,” said the man to Cooper, who was now climbing out of the access hatch at his feet. It was the Innkeeper, Grendel. “I could brew my own ale at this rate,” he continued.
“You couldn’t even brew a decent shite,” Cooper retorted, letting the keg slide off his back. It landed with a heavy thud.
“Aye, at least it’d taste better than this!” cheered one of the men sitting at the bar counter with a freshly bloodied face, raising his newly filled tankard.
“That’ll be two-copper,” Grendel snapped back from under the bar counter, latching the new keg to the taps.
“Wah? I thought it’supposed to be one-copper!”
“Aye, it was,” Grendel confirmed, still shouting from below, “until you decided to have a bit of cheek about ye.”
“No’far,” he moaned through his gummy maw. “’Mon, Coop, back me up ‘ere. Tell him it’s only one-copp.”
“Sure,” Cooper said, “but it’ll cost you a copper.”
“No worries!” the man laughed, tossing Cooper a coin. “Anything for our wee Coop.”
“Well? How about it, Grendel?” Cooper asked.
“Two-copper,” he replied bluntly, brushing his knees as he stood upright. “And the next one will be three if he keeps moaning my ear off.”
Cooper shrugged. “Well, I tried,” he said, feigning his most sincere voice possible. “Here, take this,” he then tossed the man his coin back, who caught it with a genuine surprise as he had already forgotten where it originally came from. “Half-off, on us.”
“Awk, Coop, I knew I could rely on you, mate.”
The man smiled at him gleefully, revealing the plaque mining operation taking place in his cavity-ridden gums. He then downed his pint (which stopped his bleeding—with what little use that would do now) and then eagerly jumped back into the whirling fray of flying fists that had formed in the centre of the tavern floor.
Grendel, who had just finished pouring two pints and a half-pint, turned to face Cooper. He was a stout man with a frothy white beard that encompassed half of his face and most of his upper torso. He crossed his lumber-like arms and asked, “Many more kegs you left to bring up from the pier?”
“Not many,” Cooper replied. “Half-a-dozen or so.”
“Aye, you best be on with it then. It’d be no good if that water got into them barrels; can’t be havin’ folk dropping dead on us. Dead men are bad for business—unless you’re in the business of burying them.”
Cooper thought about this for a moment. The logic was sound, he thought, in the same vein that drowning someone would indeed quench them of their thirst—yet he still couldn’t quite bring himself to agree with it. He eventually decided that trying to have a pissing contest with Grendel would only lead to wet socks and so, he mumbled some form of acknowledgment and made his way back down through the access hatch, down the wooden stairwell, through the storage room and out the door on the other side.
Cooper stood atop the catwalk, resting his arms on the damp wooden railings that hung perilously over the Mistweave Canal. His gaze fell onto the seven barrels of ale that rested peacefully on the wooden pier below. He wondered what it would like to be a barrel; what it would be like to, for once, be the one who’s being carried.
And then he saw one move.
Huh, he said to himself, still mindlessly watching the barrels.
And then he heard it talk. Although it was less talking and more of a half-suppressed, gleeful cackle.
And then he saw a tiny spark suddenly emerge then peter out, followed by some more unintelligible noises that resembled cursing.
He then noticed that it wasn’t barrel-shaped at all but humanoid. And what he had mistaken for a keg was a pint-sized man, standing at a full height no higher than four feet.
He had a small, pudgy nose that sat squarely on his rounded head. His eyes were disproportionately large compared to the rest of his person, like two mince pies sitting on a saucer. Accentuating his eyes were two thin, slivery eyebrows that elongated out from the sides of his brow and hung downwards until coming to a stop at his cheekbones, where they then aimlessly swayed in the wind. His ears couldn’t decide if they wanted to be long and pointy or stubby and bulbous, so they instead settled for somewhere grossly in the middle.
It was quite evident that whoever this person was, was a Dwelf. And Cooper watched this mysterious dwelf as he continued to strike his shard of flint at a newly inserted wick hanging from the top of one of the kegs sitting on the pier. The dwelf let out a triumphant cheer as the wick finally caught alight.
And it was then that the realisation, after hanging in the air above his head for a cartoonishly long time, finally dawned on Cooper like a bag of bricks; and he immediately began bolting down the rickety wooden stairs, reaching the pier quicker than he could finish saying, “Oh, shit!”
As quick as he was though, he was not quick enough. The hiss of the wick as it burned away its last inch was painfully foreboding; Cooper knew he was not going to be able to run back up those steps in time. He was left with one choice, and that was to dive into the canal and hope for the best.
What surprised Cooper was not how readily he accepted the fact that he was about to become submerged in what was basically untreated sewage water—but that when he committed to moving, his legs did not immediately leap off the pier as he willed them to, and instead they ran him towards the dwelf; who was simply standing by the keg, watching the wick burn gleefully and with eager anticipation. Then Cooper, without thinking, tackled the dwelf—hoisting him up into his arms and leaping off from the pier with a running jump.
Once his back foot lifted off the pier, time seemed to crawl for Cooper. He clutched the dwelf in his arms and watched as the water rose up beneath him. There was a sudden resounding blast followed by a wave of heat that scorched his back. Cooper had no time to yelp in pain though. He was immediately engulfed by the biting tendrils of cold that ran up his body and constricted his chest as he broke the water’s stinging surface.
As he sank into the depths, he noticed the ribbons of light that had gradually appeared around him. Shining down and illuminating the murky darkness with a green hue, tainted by the thick, globous slime that permeated the canal’s entirety. He pivoted his body to see above him a melting puddle of oranges speckled by shimmering blues and whites, melting into one and another like a spilled canvas of watercolour, as fire wrapped the water’s surface.
Cooper felt a squirming in his arms and was immediately reminded of the dwelf, who was now kicking and thrashing as the need for air bubbled in his lungs, which Cooper could now feel bubble in his own.
Still holding the dwelf, he kicked hard with his legs, swimming downstream with relative ease as he was fortuitously aided by the currents, until he passed the tavern on his right and surfaced near the entrance. Both he and dwelf took long, deep gulps of air—shivering still from the chilly air that taunted them as they climbed up the grassy bank, collapsing just before the gravel path. The dwelf was unmoving beside him—but breathing. Cooper lay on his stomach, barely holding one eye open as he watched the droves of patrons run out from the Drunkard’s Colic.