Shadows in Zamboula is one of the original stories by Robert E. Howard about Conan the Cimmerian. Its original title was The Man-Eaters of Zamboula. The story takes place over a night in Zamboula, with political intrigue amidst streets filled with roaming cannibals. It features the character Baal-pteor, one of the few humans in the Conan stories to be a physical challenge for the main Cimmerian character himself.
48 pages with a reading time of ~45 minutes (12123 words), and first published in 1935. This DRM-Free edition published by epubBooks, 2014.
This is a stranger Conan tale. High on violence, with little really going on. I personally did not appreciate the thinly veiled derision of the religion of Hanuman, the monkey Deity. It is one thing to talk about the extinct group who worshipped Greek gods, but quite another when there are still millions of believers of the said Deity. To each his own.
‘Peril hides in the house of Aram Baksh!’
The speaker’s voice quivered with earnestness and his lean, black-nailed fingers clawed at Conan’s mightily muscled arm as he croaked his warning. He was a wiry, sun-burnt man with a straggling black beard, and his ragged garments proclaimed him a nomad. He looked smaller and meaner than ever in contrast to the giant Cimmerian with his black brows, broad chest, and powerful limbs. They stood in a corner of the Sword-Makers’ Bazar, and on either side of them flowed past the many-tongued, many-colored stream of the Zamboula streets, which is exotic, hybrid, flamboyant and clamorous.
Conan pulled his eyes back from following a bold-eyed, red-lipped Ghanara whose short skirt bared her brown thigh at each insolent step, and frowned down at his importunate companion.
‘What do you mean by peril?’ he demanded.
The desert man glanced furtively over his shoulder before replying, and lowered his voice.
‘Who can say? But desert men and travelers have slept in the house of Aram Baksh, and never been seen or heard of again. What became of them? He swore they rose and went their way–and it is true that no citizen of the city has ever disappeared from his house. But no one saw the travelers again, and men say that goods and equipment recognized as theirs have been seen in the bazars. If Aram did not sell them, after doing away with their owners, how came they here?’
‘I have no goods,’ growled the Cimmerian, touching the shagreen-bound hilt of the broadsword that hung at his hip. ‘I have even sold my horse.’
‘But it is not always rich strangers who vanish by night from the house of Aram Baksh!’ chattered the Zuagir. ‘Nay, poor desert men have slept there–because his score is less than that of the other taverns–and have been seen no more. Once a chief of the Zuagirs whose son had thus vanished complained to the satrap, Jungir Khan, who ordered the house searched by soldiers.’
‘And they found a cellar full of corpses?’ asked Conan in good-humored derision.
‘Nay! They found naught! And drove the chief from the city with threats and curses! But–’ he drew closer to Conan and shivered–‘something else was found! At the edge of the desert, beyond the houses, there is a clump of palm trees, and within that grove there is a pit. And within that pit have been found human bones, charred and blackened! Not once, but many times!’
‘Which proves what?’ grunted the Cimmerian.
‘Aram Baksh is a demon! Nay, in this accursed city which Stygians built and which Hyrkanians rule–where white, brown and black folk mingle together to produce hybrids of all unholy hues and breeds–who can tell who is a man, and who a demon in disguise? Aram Baksh is a demon in the form of a man! At night he assumes his true guise and carries his guests off into the desert where his fellow demons from the waste meet in conclave.’
‘Why does he always carry off strangers?’ asked Conan skeptically.
‘The people of the city would not suffer him to slay their people, but they care naught for the strangers who fall into his hands. Conan, you are of the West, and know not the secrets of this ancient land. But, since the beginning of happenings, the demons of the desert have worshipped Yog, the Lord of the Empty Abodes, with fire–fire that devours human victims.
‘Be warned! You have dwelt for many moons in the tents of the Zuagirs, and you are our brother! Go not to the house of Aram Baksh!’
‘Get out of sight!’ Conan said suddenly. ‘Yonder comes a squad of the city-watch. If they see you they may remember a horse that was stolen from the satrap’s stable–’
The Zuagir gasped, and moved convulsively. He ducked between a booth and a stone horse-trough, pausing only long enough to chatter: ‘Be warned, my brother! There are demons in the house of Aram Baksh!’ Then he darted down a narrow alley and was gone.
Conan shifted his broad sword-belt to his liking, and calmly returned the searching stares directed at him by the squad of watchmen as they swung past. They eyed him curiously and suspiciously, for he was a man who stood out even in such a motley throng as crowded the winding streets of Zamboula. His blue eyes and alien features distinguished him from the Eastern swarms, and the straight sword at his hip added point to the racial difference.
The watchmen did not accost him, but swung on down the street, while the crowd opened a lane for them. They were Pelishtim, squat, hook-nosed, with blue-black beards sweeping their mailed breasts–mercenaries hired for work the ruling Turanians considered beneath themselves, and no less hated by the mongrel population for that reason.
Conan glanced at the sun, just beginning to dip behind the flat-topped houses on the western side of the bazar, and hitching once more at his belt, moved off in the direction of Aram Baksh’s tavern.