The Tunnels, Part Four
“Am I hallucinating?” Youngest stuttered, staring around, eyes enormous with awe and disbelief.
Cor slowly shook her head, equally as stunned.
From where they stood at the entrance, slightly elevated above the main cavern, they could see a number of the closest stalls.
A gnome sat on a three-legged stool near the end of one aisle, in front of a wheelbarrow four times her size that overflowed with jewelry, gems and nuggets of precious metals. The loupe hanging from her neck was in hand, and she was using it to study a large stone, while a magpie sitting atop the glinting pile argued with the apparent customer, a tall, willow-thin dryad with ash white skin that curled here and there like the bark of a birch tree and curling ivy sprouted from the top of its head in place of hair.
The dryad was insisting whatever their bargain was to be a fair trade, while the magpie scoffed and called it a “lying pile of splinters”. The gnome ignored them both as she continued to examine the chunk of embedded amethyst.
Lotkin led them forward until they fell in with the large crowds. An otter darted past on Cor’s left, stopping at a table where it straightened and transformed into a masculine elf, a long, shining coat of brown pelt swinging around him. Behind the table, a nearly identical man took the pouch the former-otter handed over and spread the contents out on the tablecloth - additional herbs and plants to those already displayed.
There was a woman with opalescent scales and a bright green braid of hair weaving down from the base of her neck manning a booth. She wore a dress of flowing gold, and the stall was filled with bolts of fabric and long strips of ribbon and cloth decoration. All her wares caught the light in a way that left Cor dizzy and her eyes aching.
A creature with crackling black skin that looked half horse and put off an intense heat even from several feet away walked by. It was draped in a robe of a pale blue color that flickered and moved like fire, and a golem of stone and clay followed obediently behind, carrying a huge metal trunk locked tightly and covered in carved symbols.
Then the most enticing scent drifted through the air, abruptly covering up the odors of strange herbs and sweat and rock, and neither mortal realized they had stopped following their guide as they deviated from Lotkin’s path, heading farther in toward the center of the cavern.
They passed additional beings, beautiful and terrible to look at, some ignoring the humans in their midst, others watching them with curious or covetous expressions. Neither human paid them any attention, the smell overpowering their senses.
Ahead was a large booth, located almost smack dab in the middle of the yawning cave. It was square in shape and double the size of any other stall, open in the middle for the workers to stand and haggle from within. The counters were piled high with fresh produce, and Cor was drawn to a pyramid of plums, all almost identically and the deep purple of a bruise.
She breathed in and memories of summers at her grandparents’ house flitted to the front of her mind.
(Grandpa had always been working in the garden, or trimming the half dozen fruit trees scattered along the boundary of the backyard. Cor, her sisters, and her cousins would be dropped off early in the day and help, in exchange for treats of fresh-shelled sweetpeas and handfuls of the grapes that grew over the chainlink fence surrounding the property.
But Cor’s favorite had been the small, twisted plum tree by the old tool shed. The fruit had been a perfect size for her small hands, heavy and dull until it was rubbed against her pants to a gleaming shine. Inside the purple skin was the red meat that burst with dribbling sweetness. She would eat three or four plums at a time, then drop the hard pits in a heap beneath the trunk, pulling up the hem of her dirty shirt to clean her hands and face.)
The plums she stared at now smelled like her best memories of childhood, and Cor’s mouth watered with hunger and want.
As she fought not to reach out, barely remembering nothing was safe, from the corner of her eye she saw Youngest, handed extended. He was enthralled by a cluster of yellow fruit she didn’t recognize, soft and too oval to be pears. Shaking herself loose from her daze, Cor tripped forward, tangling their fingers together just before he brushed the fruit.
Youngest froze at the warmth of her touch and stared down at their clasped hands in confusion, before a mild shaking whispered out through his limbs. He reciprocated her hold securely and shoved his other hand deep in his jean pocket, swallowing hard.
Which was when Lotkin’s voice hissed from behind them, “Hawk your wares to someone else! These two are mine.”
They flinched to look over their shoulders, but Lotkin was focused on the stall. Turning back, Cor nearly squeaked in surprise as she finally saw who was running the booth.
Goblins. Six of them, darting through the empty center space. All of them were short enough to need step stools, which they moved and stood on to bargain with customers. They wore clothes pieced together out of bits of leather and cloth in a hundred shades of brown and green and gray, and their mottled skin nearly matched their outfits in tone. Sharp ears stuck out to either side of their heads, with wild white hair poking up from the skull, and huge eyes that caused them to seem innocent and childlike. They made Cor think of the puppet versions in the 80’s movie The Labyrinth.
The one closest to them, watching Cor and Youngest rather than Lotkin as it answered the spider-woman’s censure, smiled and its teeth reminded Cor of nothing so much as a piranha’s, craggy and designed for the ripping and tearing of flesh. “Surely,” it seemed amused, “they simply wanted a taste of our lovely market offerings.”
Whatever Lotkin shot back in response while towering over the counter wasn’t in English, but the tone was aggressive and mocking.
The goblin merely laughed, not at all intimidated, and while Lotkin hustled Cor and Youngest away it waved and called, “You should stop by again, once you’re free of your guard dog!”
Youngest’s hand tightened on Cor’s and he quietly asked, “If we’d eaten- what would’ve happened?”
Before Cor could remind him of her earlier warning about food, Lotkin let out a short sound of mocking disbelief. “Perhaps the schlammkinder are not so clever after all. You would have become their eternal slaves, bound by their will and tied by an endless hunger for what you had consumed, always desperate and starving for another bite. You would do all manner of things for their foods.”
Youngest was pale when he bit out, “It’d turn us humans into produce-addicted junkies for those creepy little-”
“Yes,” Cor broke in before he insulted the goblins. Lotkin could apparently get away with it. They probably couldn’t. She kept her voice down when she added, “Only the food’s draw is magical, so there’s no way to get clean.”
Note: Mentions are made of Cats-Eye (created by runwildwithme) and the Foxy Lady (created and illustrated by the Queen of our Court, charminglyantiquated)