Hralf and the Sphinx

A tale of Hralf, Hewer of Sagas.

Aaaauuugh! You startled me!

How’d you even get in here, anyway? Did the priests let you in?

Yeah, I bet it did. Beaucoup bucks, too, probably.

Yeah, that’s what I thought. I wish they’d share some of that with me. Noggin’ skinflints.

Well, okay, so here we are. You’ve paid your admission—I mean, your donation—so you get to have an audience with me. How lovely for you. Waddaya want? Gnomic prophecies? Your fortune told? Or do you just want to stroke the sphinx’s fur?

Bit of an attitude? Suppose I do, it’s that kind of morning.

I spent last night out on the tiles, you know, so I’ve got a head on me this morning.

A humanish head, yeah, that’s right. You’re sharp. You should watch out you don’t cut yourself.

Look, I’m not up for fencing today. Tell me what you want, or else scram.

You want to chat.

With me.

With Lhari the Sphinx.

Now that’s a name I haven’t heard in a while. The priests, they just call me the Divine Being, when they call me anything at all.

Nah, I don’t care what they call me, as long as they don’t call me late to dinner. Three square meals a day, that’s what they promised me when they set this place up. It’s a pity I didn’t ask for drink and a salary while I was at it. The only coin I get my hands on comes from big donors like you, and it doesn’t last long.

Or, not like you, really. You’re the first one not to be star-struck at meeting the Divine Being. And usually there’s a priest hovering in the background. You must have paid them an awful lot to let you in unattended like this.

Noggin’ blackmail, is it? I always thought the halfling priest had shifty eyes.

Well. Since I don’t need to keep up the divine front, sure, let’s sit down and have a chat. I’d let my hair down, except it’s blocked in back so there’s nothing to let down.
That’s right, that’s my mane, if you like to call it that. Everybody thinks it’s some kind of headdress, but no, that’s just my hair. It grows like that naturally Gotta keep it trimmed, of course.

How’d I get the gig?

Well, it was by way of a retirement plan. I used to do stand-up, you know? But working the clubs, the night spots, the watering holes, that’s a young guy’s game. Unless you hit it big—then you retire to Morrin-by-the-Sea, where the Imperial Elite go to unwind, and you do two shows a night until you keel over from self-indulgence. The rest of us? It’s all traveling from town to town, one club after another. Doesn’t matter how good you are, once they’ve all seen you it’s time to move on. Gotta keep it fresh, right? If you’re lucky—and good—they’ll be glad to see you again in a year or two. Or three, and then you know it’s time to retire.

It all wears on a guy, you know? So when I was approached about this gig I snapped at it. It ain’t perfect, but the accommodations are okay and the work’s easy. They have me come out into the main part of the temple once a week and sit on a plinth looking regal and mysterious. Dim light, lots of smoke. Not too different from a lot of the joints I worked in, really. There’s chanting and like that, and people swaying, and after a while I turn around and stalk back out again.

Nothing to it. I don’t have to be clever, and nobody throws rotten produce at me. It’s a little boring, is all.

How’d I get into comedy?

I’ve known a lot of comics in my time, and I don’t guess my story’s all that different from anybody’s. Miserable, that is.

See, my parents moved to a little town out in the sticks when I was just a cub. Mom had a gig as the guardian of a ruined temple in the woods nearby, and Dad stayed home with me.

We were the only sphinxes in town, which was rough. I guess you know how kids are. They called me names, teased me about not having any hands. When my spots came in, they started calling me “Spot,” told me I was dog, tried to make me fetch sticks. I had to learn to make them laugh out of self-defense. It was humiliating, but I survived it.

And then Mom died. Some jackass of an adventurer answered her riddle, and she’d signed the contract for the temple gig without reading the fine print.

Yeah, you’d think I’d have learned from her bad example. I should have.

Dad started drinking a lot after that, and I had to leave home. I was fourteen, and let me tell you there ain’t many jobs for sphinxes. Not male sphinxes, anyway. The ladies, they get all of the gnomic guardian gigs, not that there are many of those going around either.

I could’ve gotten married, I guess, raised a family, but like I say we were the only sphinxes in town. I met others, later, but none of the ladies were interested in a drunkard’s son from the boondocks.

So I knocked around, here and there. I got work as a night watchman, did a little rat-catching on the side. I’m not proud of that, but I’m not ashamed of it either. You do what you have to, you know?

Eventually I got a gig at a warehouse down by the river docks in Old Peldentown. I always tried to make myself popular with the folks I worked with, cracking jokes and like that, and one day one of the other watchmen said, “You know, Lhari, you’re really funny. The innkeeper over at the Rusty Bucket fired the house bard yesterday, and he’s looking for new talent. You should go talk with him.”

I wasn’t too eager, really. But I was hungry, and the coin was welcome. See, usually I tried to find work at grain warehouses, and like that. Lots of rats to catch, and that’s a guaranteed source of protein even if you don’t get paid for it. My current gig, the warehouse just had crates of books, a lot of cheap pulp. There was nothing to attract rats, and the pay wasn’t much.

My first few nights at the Bucket weren’t anything I’d have written home about, if I’d had a home to write to. But I got better! I worked out this whole persona, “Lhari the Lounge-Leopard,” and did all my gigs in character. I spoke with a throaty exotic accent, gave the ladies these arch looks from under my eyelashes, perfected the art of the single-entendre.

Yeah, it was humiliating. I’m not a leopard—if I were any kind of a cat I’d be an ocelot. It’s a size thing. But I’m not a cat, I’m a sphinx. People say, “Oh, a sphinx, a man-headed cat,” but that’s not right. I’m not a cat, and this isn’t a man-head I’ve got, it’s a sphinx-head. I don’t know why people have so much trouble understanding that.

But humiliation and me, we’re old friends. It goes with the territory.

The stroking wasn’t bad. Sometimes after a show, one of the ladies would come up and want to buy me dinner so that they could stroke my fur, scratch behind my ears, that kind of thing. That was nice, usually. I never let it go any farther than that. I have my standards, you know.

But all that was later, after I’d left Old Peldentown. While I was at the Bucket I was lucky to find my way to the stage.

Hralf? No, I can’t remember anybody by that name. I met a lot of people over the years, and they were all more or less the same: drunk, desperate, tired, sad. They’d tell me their names, but there was no point in holding on to them, I’d be moving on in a week or so.

You think I’d remember Hralf anyway? Dunno. Describe him.

Eight feet tall, head of a lion—oh, that guy. Yeah, I guess that was his name. It’s been a long time, and that’s an episode I try not to think about.

Sure, I’ll tell you the story. It beats sitting here by myself.

This was back when I was just getting started, back in Old Peldentown. I was performing, if you can call it that, at the Duke’s Beard, having worn out my welcome at the Rusty Bucket. I really should have moved on to another town, but I hadn’t learned that yet.

So this dwarf comes up to me after the show.

“What do you want?” I ask him. It had been a bad night, and all I wanted to do was go off and drown myself in self-pity, and the worst thing was I didn’t have any coin to buy the ale to do it in. And besides, I was due at the warehouse.

You want my advice? Never quit your day-job to make it big. Make it big first.

“I have a job for you, if you want it,” he says. “A bit of guardian work. You can ask riddles, can’t you?”
“That’s lady’s work,” I say. “In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m a boy sphinx.”

Yeah, I might have sounded a little bitter.

“Doesn’t matter for this,” he says. “It’s a temporary thing. My boss wants to play a practical joke on a party of adventurers. You could think of it as a kind of performance.”

“What’s the pay?” I ask, and he names a figure.

“On completion,” he says. “But it’s easy money.”

How much did he offer? Enough to catch my interest, and not nearly enough, not for what he was letting me in for.

“Fifty percent now, fifty percent on completion,” I say.

“It’s going to take a month or two to set up,” he says. “Twenty percent when you head off to the venue, eighty percent on completion.”

“Have a heart,” I say. “You heard how my act went down tonight. Give me something now, or I might starve in the meantime. Fifteen percent now, fifteen percent later, seventy percent on completion.”

He tugged at his beard for a bit and then nodded.

“I’m yours,” I said, and he shook my paw.

What was his name? Hell, I don’t remember. Some dwarvish thing, you know, Grogi Silverfist or some such. Made no difference to me, all I cared about was keeping my belly full. Later on I learned to keep better track of things, but then?

Life is a funny thing. Up until that time I was lucky to get two or three good laughs during a performance; but after the dwarf handed me the initial fifteen percent I started to improve. Maybe my psyche took it as a vote of confidence? I dunno. But my confidence grew, I stopped getting the jitters, I learned to play to the crowds, learned to give the ladies that look from under my eyelashes.
By the time the dwarf came back, a couple of months later, I was doing okay. Not like I’d do later, not South Coast material, but I’d put on weight, and I’d quit my job at the warehouse. No more rats for Lhari! I’d almost forgotten about his offer.

“What if I’m not interested anymore?” I say to him.

“My boss would not be pleased.” Then he told me his boss’s name. It was a big one in Old Peldentown.

“Ah. Gotcha,” I say to him. “When and where?”

“Tomorrow,” he says. “At the East Gate. Wear your traveling shoes.”

So we schlepped off into the hinterlands, me and two dwarfs. I don’t know just where we went. South and east, at first, but we left the roads behind after the first week, and me, I’m a town-sphinx. We went overland for maybe a week after that, and finally came to this old hulk of a temple out in the desert.

I have to say, I was impressed. It was like they’d gone down the list of stereotypes and checked off every single one. Sand; columns; missing roof; sarcophagi; mysterious vault; it was all there.

They showed me the entrance to the vault. It had been robbed ages before, but they’d bricked it up neatly, applied a smooth coat of plaster, and added a carefully aged fresco with mystic symbols and a not-at-all-bad portrait of me reclining on a sarcophagus. Then they’d applied a nice layer of drifted sand.

They’d also dug a new tunnel from the vault out into the desert to serve as a back door. There was space in the tunnel for all of us to camp out, nicely out of sight. Me, I’d rather have slept in the open, but you know. Dwarves. Go figure.

Here was the shtick, and it really was a shtick.

The client had dropped some rumors here and there about a mystic artifact that might be found in the temple of Pasta-Fazool, or some such, so that they’d come to the ears of a particular arcane reclamation team. I think the team worked out of Clutterback City, but I don’t really remember.

The reclamators were now on their way to find the temple. The dwarves were keeping an eye out for them. When they got close enough, I was to go into the antechamber just inside the bricked up entrance, and wait.

There would be five people in the party. Once they broke through into the vault I was to do my song and dance, and generally waste their time with sphinxish chatter. Afterwards they could have the “treasure,” which was more sort of a booby-prize. They even had some riddles for me to ask.

The first part worked just as planned.

The dwarves saw the party coming well in advance. By the time they reached the temple, I was relaxing on my sarcophagus with the stone door that led further into the vault closed behind me. The dwarves had it wedged; it wouldn’t be opening until they were satisfied. Torches were flickering, incense was burning, it was all very spooky and mysterious.

Then I heard a rapping noise, and a bright tenor voice, muffled by the wall.

“The inner chamber’s pretty clearly behind this wall. Hear that?”

More rapping.

“Hralf, you want to clear this for us? It shouldn’t take more than a few swings of that big hammer of yours.”
There was a bass rumbling I couldn’t make out, and then the tenor said, “What do you mean you don’t want to damage it? It’s between us and the artifact!”

This was followed by more rumbling.

“You don’t want to damage their saga. Right. Oh, all right, have it your way.”

I was expecting loud noises. Instead, I heard some more rapping—I think they were figuring out just where the doorway was—and then silence. Had they gone away? But after maybe a quarter of an hour or so I started to see cracks appear all around the edges of the new wall. There was no noise, just puffs of dust and the growing lines of the cracks. Eventually they joined on all four sides, the section of wall tilted away from me, and finally it was simply gone as something picked it up and carried it off.

I have to say, I was beginning to have second thoughts. Whatever was big enough to carry about that big a chunk of brick wall, I didn’t want to mess with it.

The dust settled and the party entered.

There were five people, as promised, if you stretched the word people quite a long way.

Yeah, pot, kettle, you’re right. I shouldn’t talk like that.
Thing is, I was expecting humans, or maybe some dwarves. But this was the sort of motley crew that only walks into a bar in bad jokes.

There was a rather battered elf, tall and lean; a fop of a halfling, who studied me over the rim of his glasses; a golem of some stripe, rather more slender than most; a cat-woman—she might have been a cheetah, I’m thinking, but it was hard to tell because she was wearing black leather from her neck on down; and then there was this lion-man who turned out to be Hralf, all eight feet of him. He had a big war hammer on his back, and he was tucking a small hammer and chisel into a sack at his waist.

They all came in and looked at me. I smiled seraphically at them.

“What do you seek in the tomb of Amon-Amaris?” I intoned in my deepest voice.

“The Shamshir of Sarawak,” said the elf.

“Hear, then, your doom!” I said. “For the Shamshir that I give, one must answer or none shall live.”

Yeah, it was pretty corny. I didn’t write the script, you know?

No, I don’t guess it would have changed much if I had.

“So, we each get a shot at it?” asked the halfling in that same bright tenor I’d heard earlier.

I nodded solemnly.

“And if we all fail?” asked the elf.

“Then the curse of Amon-Amaris shall fall upon you, yea, unto the seventh-generation. Now go, and return at dusk tomorrow!”

I heard a grinding noise as one carefully prepared stone slid aside, high on the wall behind me. I rose to my paws, as I’d been instructed, and turning I bounded gracefully up to and through the small gap. The torches in the room behind me all went out in a flash of light, and the stone slid back into place.

It was cheesy as hell.

Dwarves. Go figure.

I snuck out of the tunnel that night and came silently over the sands to where the party was camped. They had a fire burning, for the night was cold. I perched on top of a column, out of the light, and watched, and listened.

“It seems straightforward,” said the elf. “We answer the riddles, we get the shamshir, we go home.”

“But the riddles, though,” said the halfling. “The curse is probably nothing much, but why risk it? I say we just off the sphinx and let Hralf have at that stone door with his hammer. It’s not got any sagas on it, I checked.”
I kept listening. If that was their game, I was out of there.

“Meh,” said the elf. “We can save that for later, if we need it. I say we try the riddles first.”

“I think so too, me,” said the lady cheetah. “The tomb is old; the riddles are old. Surely we have all heard them.”

“I am aware of many,” said the golem.

The big lion said nothing; he was sitting to one side, tap-tapping on a stone tablet with the same small hammer and chisel I’d seen earlier. He wasn’t making any more noise now than he had then. It was weird.

“That’s settled, then,” said the elf. “We’ll go wait on the sphinx tomorrow evening.”

That was good enough for me. I leaped silently down,
and trotted back to my bedroll in the tunnel.

“They’re hooked,” I told the dwarves in passing. They rubbed their thick hands together in anticipation.

At sunset the next day I was in my place on the sarcophagus, waiting in the torchlight, when they approached. The halfling was in the lead, and the moment he put a foot inside the torches flared up in billows of orange smoke. I wondered at the time how much the dwarves had had to a pay a wizard to set up the pyrotechnics. For a practical joke, they’d certainly gone to a great deal of expense.

But it was show-time. I sat up on my haunches and pointed a paw at the elf.

“Step forward,” I said, imperiously, in accord with my instructions. “Are you prepared to answer?”

“I am,” he said.

I put my head back and looked into the distance.

“What goes on four paws in the morning, on two paws at mid-day, and on no paws after an evening in the tavern?”

The elf stared at me.

“Really?” he said.

I nodded.

He glanced back at his fellow adventurers. “Can I—”

“No,” I said.

He frowned.

He scratched his chin.

He turned and looked at the others, his gaze lingering

longest on the lion. The halfling gave him an I-told-you-so smirk, and the cheetah tucked her arm in the lion’s and looked away. The lion said nothing.

The elf looked back at me.

“An, ah, an adventurer in town between missions.”
Instantly the torches went up in a blaze and then extinguished themselves.

“You have failed!” I proclaimed. “Your death approaches apace. Return at dusk tomorrow.” I turned and leaped through the gap over the stone door to rejoin the dwarves, who grinned happily at me.

It was a bemused group around the fire that night.

“How was that wrong?” said the elf, who was frowning. “It sounds like every adventurer I know. Can anyone think of a better answer than I gave?”

“It sounds like Hralf,” said the halfling. “The rest of us don’t have paws.”

The cheetah cocked an eye at him.

“Begging your pardon, Miss Kitty,” said the halfling, with a half bow.

“The paws were metaphorical,” said the golem. “That is how riddles work.”

“My Hralf does get legless some nights,” said the cheetah.

The elf nodded. “Yes, that did cross my mind,” he said.

“But it cannot be Hralf,” said the golem. “That would make no sense. Why would a guardian in an ancient temple have riddles for which the answer is ‘Hralf’?”

“Even if they fit perfectly,” said the halfling. He glanced at the lion. “Sorry, big guy, but it does. No offense.”

The lion looked up from his tablet.

Whispers are worthless.
Received will be recompense.
Sagas shall be seen.

The campfire crackled.

“I still think we should off the sphinx,” said the halfling. “Who ever heard of a male sphinx guarding a temple, anyway?”

“Sphinxes are tricksy,” said the cheetah. “Best we not, I think.”

She was pretty good-looking, I thought. You know, for a cat-headed human. If she’d been a human-headed cat I might have tried to get cozy, but as it was I just went off to bed.

The setup was the same the next day: torches, me, them.

“Step forward, halfling,” I said, pointing my paw. “Are you prepared to answer?”

“Hit me,” said the halfling.

“What ups halflings and downs ales?” I intoned in my most solemn voice.

The halfling gave me a piercing look, and his hand went to his belt knife. I tried not to tense, but mentally I made ready to turn and leap.

“Sarvalur…” said the elf.

The halfling muttered something about short jokes under his breath, then stood there for a while, lips pursed.

“Halfling parents,” he said at last.

The torches flared and went out.

“You have failed! Return at dusk tomorrow.”

I enjoyed watching the discussion around the fire that night.

“‘Halfling parents?'” said the elf in disbelief.

The halfling shrugged. “They raised me, and they drank a lot of ale while they did it. Best I could come up with.”

“That one sounds like my Hralf as well,” said the cheetah thoughtfully. “It is a thing he has done.”

“Don’t remind me,” said the halfling.

“You still have not mended the hole the lamp hook made in your coat,” said the cheetah.

The golem rose, examined the collar of the halfling’s coat, and chanted a few words.

“There. I have mended it,” it said.

“Thank you. But that’s not the point,” said the halfling. “These riddles make no sense. I say we bash him, take the shamshir, and run. What could be simpler?”

By this time I had taken a serious dislike to the halfling.

“It costs us little to go on,” the cheetah was saying.

“Perhaps if we continue we will learn who is behind this and why they do these things?”

The lion pulled the cheetah close by his side, but gave no other sign that he was listening.

“Humph,” said the halfling.

The dwarves were playing cards when I returned to the tunnel.

“Were you expecting to fool them?” I asked them.

“Because I’m not sure we’re fooling them.”

The dwarves looked at each other.

“It’s what the boss wants,” said one finally. The other nodded.

“It’s your funeral,” I said, thinking that it sure wasn’t going to be mine.

The party assembled the next evening at the usual time.

“Step forward, golem,” I intoned. “Are you prepared?”

“I am,” it said.

I did the shtick. “What starts words but stops doors?” I said, and waited.

The golem looked at me impassively. The others all glanced at Hralf, whose mane seemed a bit bulkier than usual, like all the individual hairs were standing up.

“The orders of the master of the house,” said the golem after a short time.

A flash, then blackness.

“You have failed!” I said. “Return at dusk tomorrow.”

There was an argument around the fire that night.

“Look,” the halfling was saying, “this is bogus. Someone’s having us on. That sphinx has asked us three riddles so far, all of which could plausibly have been answered ‘Hralf’.”

“Or one of his tablets, in this case,” said the elf.

The lion snarled softly.

The halfling turned to him. “I’m sorry, Hralf, but you know my cousin told me about how Copperbane used one of your tablets as a doorstop. I’d have been just as angry in your place, but it doesn’t change the facts.”

He looked at each of us in turn.

“We go in hard and fast, take out the sphinx, and knock down the door. One, two, three. Simple.”

“I am curious, me,” said the cheetah, “what riddle I will be asked tomorrow to which the answer could be Hralf.”

“Oh, very well,” said the halfling. “Have it your way.”

“But the answer cannot be Hralf,” said the golem. “That would make no sense.”

The party showed up on time, and the cheetah stepped forward without being asked.

“I am ready,” she said.

“Blades of grass in the grassland; grains of sand in the desert; tedious words in the telling; what combines these?”

The cheetah glanced at the lion, who was bristling, then spoke.

“I do not know of what you are speaking, me,” she said. “Unless it is your riddles.”

Darkness fell.

“You have failed!” I said, and vanished.

When I came to watch, the halfling was stomping around the campfire.

“They’re laughing at us!” he said. “We’re just wasting our time here. We could kill the sphinx right now, but I’ll tell you, there’s not going to be any treasure in there.”

Hralf looked up, and spoke. His voice was as deep as my father’s debt.

Veldts of golden grass.
Moments of a sphinxish life.
One endless, one not.

I gulped.

Hralf didn’t work on his tablets that night. Instead he reclined by the fire and watched the stars. I watched him for awhile, wondering what on earth the client was hoping to gain by this nonsense, other than deadly peril for me.

Hralf was ready the next evening, though, and stepped forward immediately when the torches came up.

I opened my mouth: “Are you—” But he interrupted me.

“I do not know you, do I?” he said.

That wasn’t in the script.

“I, ah—we’ve not been introduced, no.”

He raised a brow. “Would you like to read one of my sagas?”

“Uh. No?”

He nodded, then struck a pose.

Fearless are felines
Nine lives between them and death.
Likewise with sphinxes?

“Look, I ask the riddles around here.” I was flustered, I admit it. I was still new at the game, and hadn’t learned how to deal with hecklers all that well yet; and I already knew Hralf was angry.

“Let me translate,” said the halfing, who was testing the edge of a dagger with this thumb. “They say cats have nine lives. What say we find out how many a sphinx has, pussy-cat?”

That one I knew: just the one, or Mom would still be with us.

I tensed, and made ready. There were two things I knew that the party members didn’t.

First, my contract said I had to appear for five days, and ask the riddles word for word as they’d been given to me. I’d done that; it wasn’t my fault that the lion had interrupted me before I gave him the final one.

Second, I’d peeked in the chest that was waiting on the other side of the stone door. There was a note, and under the note—

Well, I’d rather not say what was under the note. But it was smelly, and not something this group was going to find treasurable.

“All yours,” I said, and waved a paw at the stone door. “Mind the dwarves.” Though, honestly, I’d seen the dwarves packing up that afternoon.

I can be pretty fast when I want to be. I streaked past them, out into the body of the temple, and behind a dune before the first of them emerged into the twilight. I don’t know what they said when they opened the chest, but I’m sure it was rude.

Yeah, I got paid. The dwarves were snickering all the way back to town.

Did I ever see any of the adventurers again?

Just once. I had a gig at a tavern in Clutterback City. I stuck my nose out to gauge the crowd, saw them sitting in the back, and blew town. Never went back. Life’s too short, you know?

That’s it, is it? Got all you wanted, I guess.

Thanks, then, for keeping me company for a while. It’s been pleasant.

Look, I don’t suppose you could spare a coin or two? They keep me on a pretty tight leash.

Thanks! Thanks very much. I’ll drain a saucer to you later on.

Feel free to come on back any time; I’ll be here all week—any week you care to name. And if you ever get down to the Busted Flush on Sheep Street the veal is excellent. Don’t tell them I sent you.

____

Photo by CALIN STAN on Unsplash

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