By the Barrel
I wrote this piece of silliness (a sort of Tolkien/Lovecraft mash-up) a while ago as a writing exercise. It’s been languishing on my computer ever since. I’ve been getting behind on Haskell FFT stuff, so I thought I’d release it into the wild...
“What will it be then, young Horko?” Fenton Took, landlord of The Moon In The Water, was fat and jolly as landlords should be, but Horko wasn’t in a jolly mood.
“A pint. And a brandy.”
“Brandy? What’s that about, lad? You’re not normally a hobbit for the hard stuff.”
“Had a bit of a funny turn, to tell the truth,” Horko muttered.
“Right you are then. A pint and a brandy coming up. Then you can tell us about this funny turn of yours.” Fenton bustled about, attracting the attention of the brothers Tedro and Medro Noakes, performing their usual sterling service, ensuring that the bar of The Moon was safe from collapse for another evening, and Fred Sandyman, another of the most regular of regulars.
Pint pulled and brandy poured, Fenton set the drinks and himself before Horko’s place at the bar. The Moon In The Water was quiet that night, and Horko’s anxious eye revealed no potential eavesdroppers, aside from the Noakes and Fred Sandyman, who were in truth more part of the furniture of The Moon than patrons of the establishment.
A nip of brandy and a swallow of ale seemed to calm Horko’s mood. “You know that old hole of Merriman’s, up Willow Bank way? That’s been empty since Merriman’s cousins moved out to Bree?”
“Oh aye, Horko, that was a bad business. Moving to Bree? Terrible. Is that any sort of respectable place for hobbits to be living?” That was Fenton. The Noakes and Fred Sandyman looked a little put out. This didn’t seem like a promising avenue for gossip.
“It’s not about Merriman or his cousins,” Horko snapped. “There’s someone new living there, in Merriman’s hole. Must be renting it from him.”
“I didn’t hear nothing about no new folk moving in down there,” said Medro, his brother’s head bobbing affirmatively as he spoke. “What was you doing over there anyway, Horko?”
“Delivering barrels. They ordered five dozen iron-bound oaken barrels. Strange. They can’t be brewing over there. They wanted them of a size for a hobbit. Reminded me of that funny business with the Bagginses, the older Baggins. Going down the river in a barrel, as I heard it from my old dad.” Sandyman grunted into his beer.
“So what was this funny turn all about then?” asked Fenton.
Drink was settling Horko. His hands, shakey when he came in, were steadier now. “Well, perhaps it’s nothing, but the fella renting Merriman’s hole is, well, a bit peculiar.”
Sandyman grunted again. “I tell you, it’s been nothing but peculiar round here since that Baggins business. I don’t know what decent folk are supposed to do.”
“Yes, yes, Fred. Baggins this, Baggins that. Can you play us a new tune?” More grumbling from Sandyman, but Fenton turned back to Horko. “The look on your face when you came in here, lad, it looked like you’d seen something more than a bit of peculiar.”
“Well, listen. I think the bloke renting Merriman’s hole... I don’t know how to say this. It’ll sound silly. In Hobbiton and all, but I think he’s a, a Man...”
Silence greeted this pronouncement. Tedro and Medro Noakes wore twinned expressions of astonishment, and Sandyman’s ever-present sneer deepened. “What do you mean, you think he’s a Man? You’ve never even seen a Man. You’ve never been out of Hobbiton, Horko Proudfoot. You wouldn’t know a Man if he walked in the door and bit your nose.”
Horko reddened. “I’ve seen pictures. I know what a Man looks like. Like a big ugly hobbit, even uglier than you, Fred Sandyman.” Horko looked around the taproom shiftily. “Anyway, Man or not, there’s something more than a little strange about this, this whatever he is. He’s got a way of looking at you, like he’s weighing you up for the pot. Like he’s trying to decide whether you’d be nicer roasted with an apple shoved in your mouth, or done in a lovely stew with onions, or—”
“I think that might be enough brandy for you for tonight, Horko,” said Fenton.
Two days later and the taproom of The Moon In The Water was in uproar. It seemed as though the entire Proudfoot clan were trying to crowd inside, latecomers squeezing their heads through the windows and round the doorjamb. Medro and Tedro Noakes occupied their customary places at the bar, their elbows woefully constrained by the press of the mob.
Fenton Took hammered on the bar with a poker, trying to bring the crowd to order. “Hobbits! Hobbits of Hobbiton! HOBBITS! OI!”
The room slowly subsided into quiet. Fenton stood on a stool behind the bar, his usual apron incongruous beneath an old leather helmet. “Right then, hobbits! You all know why we’re here. Search parties. Three fine hobbits have gone missing in the last two days. Foul play can’t be ruled out. We’ll coordinate searches from here. Beer at half price all day. And we have some fine pies. Or a pasty, if you’re that way inclined. Fresh bread and some ripe Buckland cheese. Blackberries gathered this morning and thick new cream...”
“Get on with it, Fenton. They’re not here for the refreshments. We need to find Horko and Trobo.” The speaker was one of the elder Proudfoots, imposing in a blue velvet waistcoat that, impractical for whacking through brambles and forest as it was, marked him as a senior member of the clan, prepared to act in a supervisory capacity, coordinating from the front lines in The Moon, ensuring that the aforementioned refreshments were of a suitable calibre for the hard-working searchers.
“And Fred Sandyman! He’s missing too.” A voice from the crowd.
“All right, Sandyman too. We’ll help look for him, even if he’s not a Proudfoot.”
Fenton rattled his poker against the bar again. “All right then! Search party leaders, you know your areas. Parties, keep together. Report back here every two hours. As I said, there are pies.”
The search parties trooped out of The Moon, some lagging behind for a pint before a long day’s work, perhaps hoping that the missing hobbits would turn up before they started looking anywhere other than the bottom of a glass, so as to avoid the whole tedious business of rummaging around the fields and spinneys of Hobbiton.
Eventually, the room was empty save for Fenton, the senior Proudfoots, already smacking their chops, and the brothers Noakes, crying off from searching by virtue of their terrible chilblains.
As the day progressed, heroic work was done in the taproom. Mountains of pies were conquered and then drowned in oceans of beer, a wall of pasties was brought low, and the corners were filled with blackberries and cream. News trickled in from the search parties, all of it negative. Neither hide nor hair of the missing hobbits could be found.
By closing time, all of the search parties had returned but two, composed primarily of some of the younger and fatter Proudfoots. An atmosphere of dread settled over the hobbits waiting in The Moon, spreading slowly out through the town in a dark and glutinous miasma. The hobbits crept back to their holes in groups, eyeing the foggy shadows warily, cringing at the slightest night-time sound.
Two days later still and the taproom of The Moon In The Water lay in ruins. Charred rafters held up the sparse remnants of the roof. Broken glass littered the floor. Not a soul stirred in the place.
The fog that spread through the town the night the searchers disappeared paralysed the hobbits of Hobbiton, most of them dropping where they stood. Paralysed them enough that they were unable to resist the shrieking winged things that arrived shortly afterwards to carry them away to the hole at Willow Bank, but not enough to hold back their screams of terror. The winged marauders broke windows and smashed doors to get at their wailing prizes, causing several fires as they knocked over lamps in their eagerness to pull the hobbits from their homes. Fenton Took was dragged from the taproom of the The Moon, his head bumping against the sill of the door and leaving a trail of blood out into the street, a trail that petered out into drops and splashes where his abductors took to the air.
The fires were seen and the screams were faintly heard in Bywater, but no hobbits braved the terrors of the night to investigate. The timid group that arrived the next morning when the sun was safely up found only a few survivors of the devastation, their skin scaled and grey, their limbs strangely withered, and not one of them capable of expressing what they had seen or heard that awful night.
In far Carcosa, beneath the shadows of the Screaming Shards, beyond the circle of mortal night, a market day. There are men here, men from Leng and Oriab, men with eyes seared white as grave-worms by horrors no mortal should gaze upon. But there are other things than men here, things that move in impossible ways, glimpsed only in stuttering nightmare flashes, things that step and slither between the worlds.
“Hobbits! Get your hobbits here! Pickled! By the barrel! Grill ‘em, fry em’, suck their brains out through their ears! Get your lovely lovely hobbits here! Three fhtagni the barrel!” The stall-keeper, a Man, or at second glance, perhaps just man-like, wears a shimmering ebon robe to his neck, his face ghost-pale by contrast. His hands, strange and stubby, gesture wildly as he cries his wares.
A shambling star-born monstrosity pauses before the stall. “Hobbits? What are hobbits, my friend?” The being, before whose presence the gaze and mind would revolt and beg to slam themselves away in howling iron-bound sanctuary, does not speak. It shapes the world anew, unspeaking, making a new and darker world in which its thoughts arrive unspoken in the mind. At each utterance, echoes of the screams of millions resound across the street, across the universe.
“Oh hello, Your Squamousness. Here, try one. They’re like men, but smaller. Slightly gamy taste, greatly improved by pickling, I’m sure you’ll agree.”
“They’re crunchy! And delicious. Bit hairy though. And pickled? Pickles give me wind. You don’t want to meet me when I’ve got wind.”
“Ah, no, perhaps not, O Curdled One. Still, tasty, eh?”
“I’ll take three barrels. They’ll go down a treat at my next soiree. A perfect little appetiser before we get on to the cultists.”
“Right you are, Your Abhorrence. On the house for you.”
“You are very kind. I shall write you down in my little book. You shall be eaten among the first. I don’t suppose you can get these hobbit things fresh, can you?”
“Bit of a supply problem there, Your Cosmicness. Part of this new Wild Food craze that’s going around, you know. You could always go out and gather some yourself.”
“What an excellent idea! Any tips? Will I need a special hound to hunt them out, these hobbits? Or some sort of implement to collect them?”
“They’re more in the way of seasonal produce, Your Deliquescence.”
“‘Seasonal produce’? Don’t tell me it’s more of that ‘stars must be right’ nonsense, is it? I never get to have any proper fun. All I want is to rampage through the universe, tearing space to shreds and tatters, leaving the stars guttering like corpse-fat candles, shitting black holes into the ruins of the dreams of every thinking mind. And they tell me ‘the stars have to be right’! And now I can’t even get myself some snacks to pass the time.”
“Sorry about that, guvnor. We might have some elves in next week though. I’ll try to get some fresh for you if you like.”
“Elves? No thank you. The last lot you sold me tried to sing to me. They hardly even screamed. Most unsatisfying. You know, perhaps I won’t eat you first.” Barrels clutched tightly, protectively, beneath three tentacles, the being shambled off, back to the foul dimension from whence it sprung.
“Hobbits! Hobbits! Hobbits! Get your lovely pickled hobbits here!”