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The Swords of Lankhmar : Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser Book 5
The Swords of Lankhmar find the city characteristically plagued by rats. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are in the employ of Glipkerio, the overlord, to guard a grain ship on its journey. Along the way the rats on board stage a rebellion and threaten to take the ship until a two-headed sea monster saves the day. If only there were two-headed sea monsters everywhere Lankhmar would be safe too. Alas, upon returning to the city, Lankhmar is controlled by rats. It is a city known for its thieves and swine, but even the city's muddiest bottom feeders had never seen pillaging and plundering like this. And only the sorcerers Sheelba of the Eyeless Face and Ningauble of the Seven Eyes can scare this scourge. Mouser must shrink into the rat's world and Fafhrd must unleash the feared feline War Cats. Then the fun really begins.
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March 18, 2008
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Excerpt from The Swords of Lankhmar by Fritz Leiber
"I see we're expected," the small man said, continuing to stroll toward the large open gate in the long, high, ancient wall. As if by chance, his hand brushed the hilt of his long, slim rapier.
"At over a bowshot distance how can you--" the big man began. "I get it. Bashabeck's orange headcloth. Stands out like a whore in church. And where Bashabeck is, his bullies are. You should have kept your dues to the Thieves Guild paid up."
"It's not so much the dues," the small man said. "It slipped my mind to split with them after the last job, when I lifted those eight diamonds from the Spider God's temple."
The big man sucked his tongue in disapproval. "I sometimes wonder why I associate with a faithless rogue like you."
The small man shrugged. "I was in a hurry. The Spider God was after me."
"Yes, I seem to recall he sucked the blood of your lookout man. You've got the diamonds to make the payoff now, of course?"
"My purse is as bulging as yours," the small man asserted. "Which is exactly as much as a drunk's wineskin the morning after. Unless you're holding out on me, which I've long suspected. Incidentally, isn't that grossly fat man--the one between the two big-shouldered bravos--the keeper of the Silver Eel tavern?"
The big man squinted, nodded, then rocked his head disgustedly. "To make such a to-do over a brandy tab."
"Especially when it couldn't have been much more than a yard long," the small man agreed. "Of course there were those two full casks of brandy you smashed and set afire the last night you were brawling at the Eel."
"When the odds are ten to one against you in a tavern fight, you have to win by whatever methods come easiest to hand," the big man protested. "Which I'll grant you are apt at times to be a bit bizarre."
He squinted ahead again at the small crowd ranged around the square inside the open gate. After a while he said, "I also make out Rivis Rightby the swordsmith ... and just about all the other creditors any two men could have in Lankhmar. And each with his hired thug or three." He casually loosened in its scabbard his somewhat huge weapon, shaped like a rapier, but heavy almost as a broadsword. "Didn't you settle any of our bills before we left Lankhmar the last time? I was dead broke, of course, but you must have had money from all those earlier jobs for the Thieves Guild."
"I paid Nattick Nimblefingers in full for mending my cloak and for a new gray silk jerkin," the small man answered at once. He frowned. "There must have been others I paid--oh, I'm sure there were, but I can't recall them at the moment. By the by, isn't that tall rangy wench--half behind the dainty man in black--one you were in trouble with? Her red hair stands out like a ... like a bit of Hell. And those three other girls--each peering over her besworded pimp's shoulder like the first--weren't you in trouble with them also when we last left Lankhmar?"
"I don't know what you mean by trouble," the big man complained. "I rescued them from their protectors, who were abusing them dreadfully. Believe me, I trounced those protectors and the girls laughed. Thereafter I treated them like princesses."
"You did indeed--and spent all your cash and jewels on them, which is why you were broke. But one thing you didn't do for them: you didn't become their protector in turn. So they had to go back to their former protectors, which has made them justifiably angry at you."
"I should have become a pimp?" the big man objected. "Women!" Then, "I see a few of your girls in the crowd. Neglect to pay them off?"
"No, borrowed from them and forgot to return the money," the small man explained. "Hi-ho, it certainly appears that the welcoming committee is out in force."
"I told you we should have entered the city by the Grand Gate, where we'd have been lost in the numbers," the big man grumbled. "But no, I listened to you and came to this godforsaken End Gate."
"Wrong," the other said. "At the Grand Gate we wouldn't have been able to tell our foes from the bystanders. Here at least we know that everyone is against us, except for the Overlord's gate watch, and I'm not too sure of them--at the least they'll have been bribed to take no notice of our slaying."
"Why should they all be so hot to slay us?" the big man argued. "For all they know we may be coming home laden with rich treasures garnered from many a high adventure at the ends of the earth. Oh, I'll admit that three or four of them may also have a private grudge, but--"
"They can see we haven't a train of porters or heavily-laden mules," the small man interrupted reasonably. "In any case they know that after slaying us, they can pay themselves off from any treasure we may have and split the remainder. It's the rational procedure, which all civilized men follow."
"Civilization!" the big man snorted. "I sometimes wonder--"
"--why you ever climbed south over the Trollstep Mountains and got your beard trimmed and discovered that there were girls without hair on their chests," the small man finished for him. "Hey, I think our creditors and other haters have hired a third S besides swords and staves against us."
The small man drew a coil of thin yellow wire from his pouch. He said, "Well, if those two graybeards in the second-story windows aren't wizards, they shouldn't scowl so ferociously. Besides, I can make out astrological symbols on the one's robe and see the glint of the other's wand."
They were close enough now to the End Gate that a sharp eye could guess at such details. The guardsmen in browned-iron mail leaned on their pikes impassively. The faces of those lining the small square beyond the gateway were impassive too, but grimly so, except for the girls, who smiled with venom and glee.
The big man said grumpily, "So they'll slay us by spells and incantations. Failing which, they'll resort to cudgels and gizzard-cutters." He shook his head. "So much hate over a little cash. Lankhmarts are ingrates. They don't realize the tone we give their city, the excitement we provide."
The small man shrugged. "This time they're providing the excitement for us. Playing host, after a fashion." His fingers were deftly making a slipknot in one end of the pliant wire. His steps slowed a trifle. "Of course," he mused, "we don't have to return to Lankhmar."
The big man bristled. "Nonsense, we must! To turn back now would be cowardly. Besides, we've done everything else."
"There must be a few adventures left outside Lankhmar," the small man objected mildly, "if only little ones, suitable for cowards."
"Perhaps," the big man agreed, "but big or little, they all have a way of beginning in Lankhmar. Whatever are you up to with that wire?"
The small man had tightened the slipknot around the pommel of his rapier and let the wire trail behind him, flexible as a whip. "I've grounded my sword," he said. "Now any death-spell launched against me, striking my drawn sword first, will be discharged into the ground."
"Giving Mother Earth a tickle, eh? Watch out you don't trip over it." The warning seemed well-advised--the wire was fully a half-score yards long.
"And don't you step on it. 'Tis a device Sheelba taught me."
"You and your swamp-rat wizard!" the big man mocked. "Why isn't he at your side now, making some spells for us?"
"Why isn't Ningauble at your side, doing the same?" the small man counter-asked.
"He's too fat to travel." They were passing the blank-faced guardsmen. The atmosphere of menace in the square beyond thickened like a storm. Suddenly the big man grinned broadly at his comrade. "Let's not hurt any of them too seriously," he said in a somewhat loud voice. "We don't want our return to Lankhmar beclouded."
As they stepped into the open space walled by hostile faces, the storm broke without delay. The wizard in the star-symboled robe howled like a wolf and lifting his arms high above his head, threw them toward the small man with such force that one expected his hands to come off and fly through the air. They didn't, but a bolt of bluish fire, wraith-like in the sunlight, streamed from his out-flung fingers. The small man had drawn his rapier and pointed it at the wizard. The blue bolt crackled along the slim blade and then evidently did discharge itself into the ground, for he only felt a stinging thrill in his hand.
Rather unimaginatively the wizard repeated his tactics, with the same result, and then lifted his hands for a third bolt-hurling. By this time the small man had got the rhythm of the wizard's actions and just as the hands came down, he flipped the long wire so that it curled against the chests and faces of the bullies around the orange-turbaned Bashabeck. The blue stuff, whatever it was, went crackling into them from the wire and with a single screech each they fell down writhing.
Meanwhile the other sorcerer threw his wand at the big man, quickly following it with two more which he plucked from the air. The big man, his own out-size rapier drawn with surprising speed, awaited the first wand's arrival. Somewhat to his surprise, it had in flight the appearance of a silver-feathered hawk stooping with silver talons forward-pointing to strike. As he continued to watch it closely, its appearance changed to that of a silver long knife with this addition: that it had a silvery wing to either side.
Undaunted by this prodigy and playing the point of his great rapier as lightly as a fencing foil, the big man deftly deflected the first flying dagger so that it transfixed the shoulder of one of the bullies flanking the keeper of the Silver Eel. He treated the second and third flying dagger in the same fashion, so that two other of his foes were skewered painfully though unfatally.
They screeched too and collapsed, more from terror of such supernatural weapons than the actual severity of their wounds. Before they hit the cobbles, the big man had snatched a knife from his belt and hurled it left-handed at his sorcerous foe. Whether the graybeard was struck or barely managed to dodge, he at any rate dropped out of sight
Meanwhile the other wizard, with continuing lack of imagination or perhaps mere stubbornness, directed a fourth bolt at the small man, who this time whipped upward the wire grounding his sword so that it snapped at the very window from which the blue bolt came. Whether it actually struck the wizard or only the window frame, there was a great crackling there and a bleating cry and that wizard dropped out of sight also.
It is to the credit of the assembled bullies and bravos that they hesitated hardly a heartbeat at this display of reflected death-spells, but urged on by their employers--and the pimps by their whores--they rushed in, lustily trampling the wounded and thrusting and slashing and clubbing with their various weapons. Of course, they had something of a fifty-to-two advantage; still, it took a certain courage.
The small man and the big man instantly placed themselves back to back and with lightning-like strokes stood off the first onset, seeking to jab as many faces and arms as they could rather than make the blows deep and mortal. The big man now had in his left hand a short-handled axe, with whose flat he rapped some skulls for variety, while the small man was supplementing his fiendishly pricking rapier with a long knife whose dartings were as swift as those of a cat's paw.
At first the greater number of the assaulters was a positive hindrance to them--they got into each other's way--while the greatest danger to the two fighting back-to-back was that they might be overwhelmed by the mere mass of their wounded foes, pushed forward enthusiastically by comrades behind. Then the battling got straightened out somewhat, and for a while it looked as if the small and big man would have to use more deadly strokes--and perhaps nevertheless be cut down. The clash of tempered iron, the stamp of boots, the fighting-snarls from twisted lips, and the excited screeches of the girls added up to a great din, which made the gate guard look about nervously.
But then the lordly Bashabeck, who had at last deigned to take a hand, had an ear taken off and his collarbone on that side severed by a gentle swipe of the big man's axe, while the girls--their sense of romance touched--began to cheer on the outnumbered two, at which their pimps and bullies lost heart.
The attackers wavered on the verge of panic. There was a sudden blast of six trumpets from the widest street leading into the square. The great skirling sound was enough to shatter nerves already frayed. The attackers and their employers scattered in all other directions, the pimps dragging their fickle whores, while those who had been stricken by the blue lightning and the winged daggers went crawling after them.
In a short time the square was empty, save for the two victors, the line of trumpeters in the street mouth, the line of guards outside the gateway now facing away from the square as if nothing at all had happened--and a hundred and more pairs of eyes as tiny and red-glinting black as wild cherries, which peered intently from between the grills of street drains and from various small holes in the walls and even from the rooftops. But who counts or even notices rats?--especially in a city as old and vermin-infested as Lankhmar.
The big man and the small man gazed about fiercely a bit longer. Then, regaining their breaths, they laughed uproariously, sheathed their weapons, and faced the trumpeters with a guarded yet relaxed curiosity.
The trumpeters wheeled to either side. A line of pikemen behind them executed the same movement, and there strode forward a venerable, clean-shaven, stern-visaged man in a black toga narrowly bordered with silver.
He raised his hand in a dignified salute. He said gravely, "I am chamberlain of Glipkerio Kistomerces, Overlord of Lankhmar, and here is my wand of authority." He produced a small silver wand tipped with a five-pointed bronze emblem in the form of a starfish.
The two men nodded slightly, as though to say, "We accept your statement for what it's worth."
The chamberlain faced the big man. He drew a scroll from his toga, unrolled it, scanned it briefly, then looked up. "Are you Fafhrd the northern barbarian and brawler?"
The big man considered that for a bit, then said, "And if I am?"
The chamberlain turned toward the small man. He once more consulted his parchment. "And are you--your pardon, but it's written here--that mongrel and long-suspected burglar, cut-purse, swindler and assassin, the Gray Mouser?"
The small man fluffed his gray cape and said, "If it's any business of yours--well, he and I might be connected in some way."
As if those vaguest answers settled everything, the chamberlain rolled up his parchment with a snap and tucked it inside his toga. "Then my master wishes to see you. There is a service which you can render him, to your own considerable profit."
The Gray Mouser inquired, "If the all-powerful Glipkerio Kistomerces has need of us, why did he allow us to be assaulted and for all he might know slain by that company of hooligans who but now fled this place."
The chamberlain answered, "If you were the sort of men who would allow yourselves to be murdered by such a mob, then you would not be the right men to handle the assignment, or fulfill the commission, which my master has in mind. But time presses. Follow me."
Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser looked at each other and after a moment they simultaneously shrugged, then nodded. Swaggering just a little, they fell in beside the chamberlain, the pikemen and trumpeters fell in behind them, and the cortege moved off the way it had come, leaving the square quite empty.
Except, of course, for the rats.