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HALF • by Fred Warren

“So, Kallan, is the cask half-empty, or half-full, do you think?”

Kallan scowled at his partner. “What kind of question is that?”

“My grand-marm always used to say you could tell a person’s whole outlook on life by the way they answer that question,” Paxon replied, twiddling his fingers the way he always did when he got sentimental. “Y’see, if you’re an optimist, you’ll say the cask is half-full, but if you’re a pessimist…”

Kallan waved him off. “I get the idea. It makes no difference to me, either way.”

Paxon smiled and raised a chubby index finger triumphantly. “Ah, then you’re an agnostic!”

“Oh, give it a rest, Paxon.” Kallan continued pacing around the muddy oaken barrel they’d dragged up five flights of stairs, floated across a moat, rolled through two acres of corn, and pushed into the abandoned warehouse that their employer had designated as rendezvous. “What I care about is what that old greybeard is going to say when we deliver him a barrel of magical liquid that isn’t full to the brim. He’ll think we’ve been nipping into it.”

“Don’t be so gloomy. We fought our way through twelve guards, seven dogs, and one very determined rat to reach this barrel. I think that bite on my ankle is going to scar. He should be grateful.”

Kallan spat on the floor. “Wizards are never grateful. They’re either angry, in which case all manner of unpleasant things are likely to befall the poor soul who’s the object of their wrath, or they’re something less than angry, and you might escape with your skin and a modest reward.”

Paxon scratched his head. “You’re saying there’s no such thing as a happy wizard?”

“Not in my experience. He ought to be here by now. Let’s push it to the center. He may be so taken with the symmetry of the arrangement that he won’t think to check the contents until we’ve departed.”

“I don’t think that’s likely.”

“Me neither, but it bothers me, things not being all neat and tidy. Grab the other side.”

The two mercenaries wrestled the heavy barrel to the middle of the room, its contents sloshing noisily within. Paxon sneezed. The old warehouse was attached to an abandoned flour mill, and there was a prodigious amount of dust floating in the air. He rubbed his crooked nose. “You think we ought to take a peek inside, just to be sure it’s the right cask?”

“There was only one cask in that accursed dungeon.”

“That we know of.”

Kallan wavered, watching the cask out of the corner of his eye. “He’ll be angry… angrier… if he catches us popping the lid off.”

“He’ll be angrier… er… if it’s full of beer rather than magical liquid.”

“True.” Kallan’s scarred cheeks twitched upward. “Now that I think on it, if it does happen to be full of beer, we could have a quick draught before we hightail it away. I’ve a bit of a thirst after all that hacking and slashing.”

“And pushing and dragging and floating and rolling. My thoughts exactly.” Paxon inspected the cask, and he frowned. “How odd. There doesn’t seem to be a way to open it, short of breaking it.”

“There’s some lettering at the top, there.” Kallan bent closer and squinted. “It says, ‘Turn clockwise to open.’”

“Like a jar? How wonderful! What will they think of next?”

“The ways of wizards are dark and devious. Here, grab the other side and give ’er a twist with me.”

Kallan took hold, Paxon met his eyes and nodded, then they both tugged at the lid.

“Stuck tight,” Paxon huffed, wiping his hands on his trousers.

“Idiot. We were turning opposite directions. Pull with me this time, to the right. Ready?”

“Ready. One, two, three!”

The lid spun smoothly from the cask with a soft sucking sound. They peered inside.

“Half-full, do you reckon?” asked Paxon.

“Half-full indeed, and smells like a prize lager. Probably from the Baron’s private reserve. Look sharp now. You have a cup?”

Paxon rummaged around in his rucksack. “Two. My grand-marm used to say a gentleman must always be prepared to share a toast with a friend.”

“Fine woman, your grand-marm. Gimme one of those.”

“Here. Now, what would magical liquid smell like, do you suppose?”

“No idea, but I know what good beer smells like.” Kallan reached into the cask and dipped out a cupful, then took Paxon’s cup and did the same. “To what should we toast?”

Paxon grinned. “Good digestion!”

“What?”

“Well, my grand-marm always used to say…”

“Oh, hang your grand-marm. To a clean getaway. Down the hatch!”

They drained their cups, smiling from ear to ear.

Kallan smacked his lips. “What do you think? A mite heavy on the hops, if you ask me. A bit astringent.”

“Makes me feel rumbly in the tummy,” Paxon replied. His eyes widened. “Oh, crumbs.”

With a poof of smoke, the two mercenaries vanished, and their clothes dropped into two little piles on either side of the cask.

A flash of light filled the warehouse, and Valpanor, Grand Wizard of the Blustery Northeast, appeared, coughing and sputtering and slapping wisps of smoke from his silver-spangled satin robes. “Blasted teleportation,” he muttered. “Takes a year off my life every time I indulge in it.”

He surveyed the room. The two lunkheads he’d hired to infiltrate the Baron’s keep and recover his cask of magical reducing fluid were nowhere to be seen. There was some commotion under the warehouse floorboards — the rats were probably busy chasing after some morsel or other. Valpanor picked up the cask’s discarded lid, peering inside the container as he put it back into place.

He clucked his tongue sorrowfully. “Tsk, tsk. Half-empty.”


Fred Warren writes science fiction and fantasy. His short fiction has appeared in a variety of print and online publications, and his first novel, The Muse, debuted in November 2009. Fred works as a government contractor in eastern Kansas, where he lives with his wife and three children. You can find links to his other stories in print and online at http://frederation.wordpress.com/publications.

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HALF • by Fred Warren, 3.8 out of 5 based on 59 ratings
Posted on January 13, 2010 in Fantasy, Stories
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  • Linda G

    What a wonderful and delightful fantasy tale to wake up to! The prose flowed effortlessly; I didn’t get “caught” on any words or phrasing; there was no need to re-read at all. Five cups of lager from me.

  • Gaius

    >> Five cups of lager from me.
    Doesn’t that mean you’ve shrunk to the size of an atom? :)

    Great read.

    G

  • T L Jones

    Great story and even better writing.

  • http://tinyurl.com/ychusyd Oscar Windsor-Smith

    Fantasy is not usually my thing, Fred, but I enjoyed this very much. A touch of the pantomime (does that translate, Stateside?) atmosphere about it, especially when the wizard appears. Only oddity in my reading was the description of the cloud of smoke in which he appears – a poof – really? Is this another one of those words that US/UK disagree over? In the UK we’d call it a puff of smoke, a poof is a story altogether.

    ;) scar

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  • Bob

    A perfect 5.

  • http://www.deborahblood.com Debi Blood

    What a fabulous bit of fantasy! Loved it!

  • Elizabeth Perfect

    That was wonderful!

  • Red

    Another great story! definitely a 5

    red

  • http://www.jonathanpinnock.com Jonathan Pinnock

    Nice one!

  • http://teenangel.netfirms.com Jim Hartley

    This one rates so well that I could pour some of the magic reducing fluid on the score, andit would STILL not shrink below a five.

    Wonderful!

  • http://www.theprodigalscribe.com Mickey Mills

    Most excellent! This is leaps and bounds above anything we’ve seen around here lately!!

    Well done!

    And five exclamation points to boot!

  • J.C. Towler

    I always appreciate a story that makes an effort to “bring things full circle”; bonus points when the writer pulls it off.

    My only tiny nit was concerned the mercs, Paxon (play on “pox on” perhaps?) and Kallan. Paxon is the philosopher, Kallan his pessimistic foil. He’s had experience dealing with wizards in the past. Both are clearly capable men, judging by what they had to go through to get the cask. So why do they indulge in a “magical liquid”? Their stupidity at this point in the story is just a wee bit too convenient. Better if their greed or curiosity had been established earlier, leading to the unfortunate taste testing.

    But, as I said, a minor point. I liked this one. Throw in a dead parrot and it would work as a Python skit.

    –John

  • fishlovesca

    Find it unbelievable. Mercs going to all that effort for very little reward is unbelievable. Drinking a wizard’s potion is unbelievable. The wizard having to hire mercs is unbelievable. Not noticing the clothes as an indication of where the mercs went is unbelievable.

    The only way one could credit this story would be to believe it is meant to be ridiculous, in which case the mercs should not have described wizards in the way they described them.

    Three stars, well-written, good storytelling.

  • Margie

    This was a perfect “5” in every way. Thanks for the morning giggle.

  • Lisa C.

    Well written — clean prose that flows, with nice characterization and a solid story. I too had a bit of trouble believing that the mercs would imbibe something a wizard sent them to retrieve, but it didn’t bother me, as it went along with the light amusing tone of the tale.

    Nice job!

  • Alvin

    Bravo!

  • http://www.rlcopple.com R. L. Copple

    Cool tale! Enjoyed it very much. :)

  • http://smsand.wordpress.com Scott M. Sandridge

    This gets a 5!

  • Chuck

    Very well written but also very predictable. If the author were to let their imagination run wild and write down the results rather than re-cycling characters that have become pseudo-archetypes and themes that are worn out their writing will improve significantly and become far more exciting to read.

  • http://wanttogetpublished.blogspot.com Bernard S. Jansen

    Good story. My only nitpick would be the word “partner” up front. This is our first word to establish the relationship of the mercenaries. Partner has too many different meanings. I thought they were homosexual “life partners” until well into the story.

  • Christopher Floyd

    This was good, no doubt. Not my favorite, but good. Gotta disagree with Chuck. I didn’t find this predictable. Maybe I don’t read enough fantasy.

  • http://frederation.wordpress.com Fred Warren

    Thanks for the comments and critiques, everyone. Cheers, and good digestion!

  • http://www.studioshinnyo.com Christopher B

    On behalf of dungeon masters everywhere, I’d like to say that this story should be REQUIRED READING for everyone who is about to sign a contract with a wizard. Hahah! Loved it.

  • http://users.beagle.com.au/peterl P.M.Lawrence

    Fishlovesca wrote “Mercs going to all that effort for very little reward is unbelievable”.

    No, times might be hard for such people. It was quite common for even regular soldiers to be disbanded and left to beg at the outbreak of peace (Chesterton quotes a rhyme from his childhood: “Here comes an old soldier from Botany Bay / What have we got to give him today?”).

    “Drinking a wizard’s potion is unbelievable”.

    Implausible but not impossible.

    “The wizard having to hire mercs is unbelievable”.

    No; he didn’t have to, he merely found it more convenient. That’s like saying a surgeon taking his cat to a vet is unbelievable.

    “Not noticing the clothes as an indication of where the mercs went is unbelievable”.

    No; piles of odds and ends in an abandoned warehouse are quite credible.

    And, to top it off… the wizard could well have intended that outcome (say, to tidy up loose ends that might talk), and chosen his agents accordingly.

  • http://www.michelleklein.com Shelle

    Great story! Well written and a lot of fun to read.

  • http://cathischatter.blogspot.com Cathi H.

    Very nicely written and amusing. Yes, let this be a lesson to us all–never drink from a wizard’s cask. I noticed that Kallan was right about wizards.

  • Paul Graham

    Entertaining throughout. I like the summarised stealing of the barrel and the nonchalant ending.

  • http://www.apcharman.com Andy Charman

    Well written, but I found the half-full/half-empty motif too much given that it is such a well-worn cliche. I was also amused by the mercenary who’s terribly concern that the bite on his ankle ‘might scar’. Poor love.

  • Leslie

    Great one, Fred! well written and a fun read!

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