The Long, Sad Tale of Horsepuncher Jones
By Grant Stone
Not every halfling has the luxury of a loving uncle or occasional visits by an indulgent wizard. As a rule, halflings are happy to sit, to smoke and drink, and enjoy each other's company. But every now and then, there's a halfling who just doesn't fit.
Lortho Balbins was a halfling of unusual cynicism, more mocking and arrogant than most. Those who knew him would say he was a hard halfling to love. Even his own mother had been known on occasion to refer to him as "a bit of a dick". Lortho's face was twisted in a continual sneer, and he held himself as if he had coconuts in his breeches.
Eventually, Lortho felt he had outgrown his home. Or perhaps his home had tired of him: it was communicated to him, by coughs and raised eyebrows and missing invitations to certain parties, that he was no longer welcome. So one evening he left his front door and the valley of his home, stopping only to break into the house of the most famous halfling, steal some blood-stained armour from his study and piss on his gate. Then he made his way into the night.
If Lortho thought he would find a warmer welcome in the world of men, he was soon disappointed. Halflings were rarely taken seriously, but at least the charming and eager-to-please nature of most of them, combined with their willingness to share their strongest pipeweed, they could often find employment in the hospitality trade. Lortho thought he might be able to do the same, but his arrogant demeanor did not go over well with either tavern keepers or quiet drinkers. The best he could do was earn a few coppers as a stable boy, but even this was doomed to failure. Lortho had never before seen the mounts of humans and elves. At the first appearance of such a giant beast, snorting and stamping in the stable doorway, Lortho was terrified. He was found several hours later by the barman, curled up in the corner of the far stable, whimpering.
Dismissed from employ, Lortho continued to travel. He moved further into the world of men. The cities he travelled to grew larger, as did the four-legged monsters the men rode. If Lortho were to have any hope of surviving in this world, he needed to find a way to avoid these beasts.
By the time he arrived in the next city, he was calling himself Horsepuncher Jones. For a while things looked up. He was treated, if not with respect, at least with a little more wariness. After all, someone called Horsepuncher Jones was clearly not a person to mess with. But he still needed to eat and his new name was an employment issue. Nobody wanted to order their lunch from a halfling waiter with a face like his, particularly if he gave his name as Horsepuncher.
Eventually Horsepuncher found himself falling in with the lowest parts of society. The rag-thieves, and cart-tippers, the false cripples and goat-renters. But his pride would not let him stay. He wanted money. More, he wanted to return to his valley a rich man, pulling his fortune behind him in a series of carts. For a Halfling such as Horsepuncher, there was one option.
He fell in with a band of adventurers, brigands who travelled to delicate underground ecosystems, trampling flora and murdering fauna in a never-ending, and often futile search for treasure. What gold they did find was spent on healing broken bones and repairing broken weapons. No matter how many times he dove into those black, fetid caves, Horsepuncher never seemed to make any money.
Finally, his luck, never in abundant supply, ran out. Lost below ground, his party scattered and barely sober, Horsepuncher stumbled into a nest of very large, very angry rats. They climbed up his legs, crawled under his stolen armour and bit him into blackness.
It should have ended there. Pointlessly dead and bound for halfling heaven where, like any other meeting of his kind, he could expect to be shunned and eventually disinvited. But there was no light in the sky, the amber of fresh beer. Instead, Horsepuncher woke at the mouth of a sewer near the city, body covered in scars but otherwise untouched.
He stumbled out, wincing into the morning sun, wondering what had happened. It was early and the moon was still in the sky, waning, just a slice falling behind the hills. He felt strong, as if he'd enjoyed a hearty meal. Perhaps, Horsepuncher thought, he'd had a lucky escape, the first of his life. Perhaps things were going to go his way from now on. He continued to feel that way for a few weeks.
Then the moon rose full and Horsepuncher realised his woes were just beginning.
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