The Hucksters' Lot
Hobbies: Mischief, marketing, sales
A very short story about a very short person
The desert shimmered in the heat waves. Marigold the halfling stared out over the aching desolation and involuntarily drew the back of her sunburned hand over her blackened lips. She shook her head, blinking. The sun’s glare half blinded her. She lifted a small canteen from her belt and shook it, scowling at the faint splashing within.
The halfling growled wordlessly, glaring truculently at the surrounding waste, with outthrust jaw, and green eyes glittering from under her blonde tousled mane, as if the desert were a tangible enemy.
Endowed with all the halfling’s fierce love of life and instinct to live, Marigold the halfling understood she had reached the end of her trail. She had not come to the limits of her endurance, but she knew another day under the merciless sun in those waterless wastes would bring her down.
She halted suddenly, stiffening. Far out on the desert to the south, something glimmered through the heat waves.
At first she thought it was a phantom, one of the mirages which had mocked and maddened her in that accursed desert. Shading her sun-dazzled eyes, she made out spires and minarets, and gleaming walls. She watched it grimly, waiting for it to fade and vanish.
“What tricks are these,” she muttered. “It’s worth a try, though.”
The chance for life had lent fresh vigor and resilience to the halfling’s leaden limbs. She strode out across the sandy waste as if she had just begun the journey. A halfling of halflings, the freedom of the trek were her, the rough life of farming had given her more stamina than the average halfling possesses; but even so, she was not far from collapse.
For days she had fled into the desert, pursued so far by maurading slavers that when she shook off the pursuit, she dared not turn back. Marigold pushed on, seeking water, until the pony died. Then she went on foot. For the past few days her suffering had been intense.
The sun beat fiercely on Marigold’s tangled blonde mane. Waves of dizziness and nausea rose in her brain, but she set her teeth and strode on unwaveringly. She was convinced that the city was a reality and not a mirage. What she would find there she had no idea. The inhabitants might be hostile. Nevertheless it was a fighting chance, and that was as much as she had ever asked.
The sun was nigh to setting when she halted in front of the massive gate, grateful for the shade. Above her the walls towered some thirty feet in height, composed of a smooth greenish substance that shone almost like glass. Marigold scanned the parapets, expecting to be challenged, but saw no one. Impatiently she shouted, and banged on the gate with her sling staff, but only the hollow echoes mocked her.
Then the gate swung open and she saw a wide open expanse, like a court, bordered by the arched doorways of houses composed of the same greenish material as the outer walls. These edifices were lofty and imposing, pinnacled with shining domes and minarets. There was no sign of life among them. In the center of the court rose the square curb of a well, and the sight stung Marigold, whose mouth felt caked with dry dust. She drew herself through the gate, and closed it behind her.
There was water in the well, but she did not drink of it. Its level was a good fifty feet below the curb, and there was nothing to draw it up with. Marigold cursed blackly, maddened by the sight of the stuff just out of her reach, and turned to look for some means of obtaining it.
She glanced at the archways that gaped blankly from the green walls above her. She saw no hint of movement, heard no sound.
Dusk had fallen, filling the strange city with purple shadows. She entered an open doorway, and found herself in a wide chamber, the walls of which were hung with velvet tapestries, worked in curious designs. Floor, walls and ceiling were of the green glassy stone, the walls decorated with gold frieze-work. Furs and satin cushions littered the floor. Several doorways let into other rooms. She passed through, and traversed several chambers, counterparts of the first. She saw no one, but the halfling grunted suspiciously muttering to herself.
“Some one was here not long ago. This couch is still warm from contact with someone’s body. That silk cushion bears the imprint of some one’s hips. And there’s a faint scent of perfume lingering in the air.”
A weird unreal atmosphere hung over all. Traversing this dim silent palace was like an opium dream. Some of the chambers were unlighted, and these she avoided. Others were bathed in a soft weird light that seemed to emanate from jewels set in the walls in fantastic designs.
On a table of polished ebony stood golden vessels, apparently containing food and drink. The room was unoccupied.
“Well, whoever this feast is prepared for,” she growled, “they’ll have to look elsewhere tonight.”
She sat down, and seizing a jade goblet, emptied it at a gulp. It contained a crimson winelike liquor of a peculiar tang, unfamiliar to her, but it was like nectar to her parched gullet. Her thirst allayed, she attacked the food before her with rare gusto.
It too was strange to her: exotic fruits and unknown meats. The vessels were of exquisite workmanship, and there were golden knives and forks as well. It occurred to Marigold that the food might be poisoned, but the thought did not lessen her appetite; she preferred to die of poisoning rather than starvation.
Her hunger satisfied, she leaned back with a deep sigh of relief. That there were others in that silent city was evidenced by the fresh food, and perhaps every dark corner concealed a lurking enemy. But she felt no apprehension on that score, having a large confidence in her innate luck. She began to feel sleepy, and stretched herself on a near-by couch for a nap.
There was no light in the room, but it was partially illuminated by the radiance behind her, which streamed across it into yet another chamber. From where she now laid, she could no longer see the table, but she could see the shadow it cast on the wall behind it. And now another shadow moved across the wall: a huge shapeless black blot. Marigold felt her hair prickle curiously as she watched. Distorted though it might be, she felt that she had never seen any creature; human, elf, or beast, which cast such a shadow. She was consumed with curiosity, but some instinct held her frozen. The great shadow engulfed that of the table. For a long instant only its black bulk was thrown on the smooth wall. Then slowly it receded, and once more the table was etched darkly against the wall.
She was aware of an iciness in her own veins. Human foes she did not fear; anything understandable, however grisly, caused no tremors in her small breast. But this was beyond her ken.
After a while, however, her curiosity conquered her uneasiness, and she moved out into the unlighted chamber, ready for anything. Looking into the other room, she saw it was empty. The table stood as she had first seen it. Again she felt the icy hand of fear, an aura of unnatural horror hung over those dim-lit chambers.
She had traversed but a single chamber when again she stopped short. Some one or something was approaching. She faced the doorway whence the sounds came, waiting for she knew not what. Marigold’s nostrils widened, and her eyes narrowed. she caught the faint scent of the perfume she had noticed earlier in the night. A figure framed itself in the doorway.
It was a woman who stood there. She was tall, lithe, shaped like a goddess; clad in a narrow girdle crusted with jewels. A burnished mass of night-black hair set off the whiteness of her ivory body. Her dark eyes, shaded by long dusky lashes, were deep with sensuous mystery. Marigold caught her breath at her beauty. The halfling had never seen such a woman.
When the woman spoke, in a deep rich musical voice, it was in the Halfling tongue.
“Who are you? What do you in Caxul?”
“Who are you?” bluntly countered Marigold, who quickly wearied of answering questions.
“I am Calistria the Chaotic,” she replied. “Are you mad, to come here?”
“I’ve been thinking I must be,” Marigold grumbled. “If I am sane, I’m out of place here. I stagger in from the desert, dying of thirst and hunger, and enter a palace rich and luxuriant, yet apparently empty. I find a meal set, but with no feasters. Then I see a shadow slither where none should be—” she watched Calistria narrowly and saw her pale slightly. “Well?”
“Well what?” Calistria demanded, apparently regaining control of herself.
“What is this place?”
“This city is called Caxul; it is very ancient. It is built over an oasis, which the founders of Caxul found in their wanderings. They came from the east, so long ago that not even scholars remember the age. The city is really one great palace, with every building inside the walls closely connected with the others. Ages ago you might walk among these chambers for hours and see no one. At other times, you would meet hundreds of the inhabitants.”
“How is that?” Marigold inquired uneasily; this savored too strongly of dark sorceries for comfort.
“Much of the time they would lie in sleep. Their dream-life was as important—and to them as real—as their waking life. You have heard of the black lotus? In certain pits of the city it grows. Through the ages they cultivated it, until, instead of death, its juice induced dreams, gorgeous and fantastic. In these dreams they spent most of their time. Their lives were vague, erratic, and without plan. They dreamt, they woke, drank, loved, ate and dreamt again. They seldom finished anything they began, but left it half completed and sunk back again into the slumber of the black lotus. Their ancestors were mental giants, who built this marvelous city in the desert, and though the race became slaves to their curious passions, some of their wonderful knowledge still remains. Have you wondered about these lights? They are jewels, fused with radium. You rub them with your thumb to make them glow, and rub them again, the opposite way, to extinguish them.”
Marigold mulled over this for a space. “What of the slithering thing that stole through the chambers?”
“That was Grotl, the Ancient, the god of Caxul, who dwells in the sunken dome in the center of the city. It has always dwelt in Caxul. Whether it came here with the ancient founders, or was here when they built the city, none knows. But the people of Caxul worshipped it. Mostly it sleeps below the city, but sometimes at irregular intervals it grows hungry, and then it steals through the secret corridors and the dim-lit chambers, seeking prey. Then none is safe.”
“Why are you here, Calistria? Marigold asked pointedly. “Do you battle Grotl?”
“No. You must wake and leave this forsaken city if you are to be my chosen. There is an oasis a day’s march to the south—I have seen it on the old maps their ancestors drew on parchment—and fertile grasslands which the maps also show lying another day’s march beyond it.”
“YOUR chosen?!” the halfling scoffed. “But…what of Grotl?”
“Not your concern! Flee and take this with you.” Calistria held out a small object carved from ivory strung on a black silken cord. Her fading voice demanded, “Wake now, Marigold!”
The halfling’s eyes blearily opened. Her arm was outstretched, her hand closed around empty air.