Glipkerio sat fidgeting on the edge of his seashell-shaped couch of gold. His light battle-ax lay forgot on the blue floor beside him. From a low table he took up a delicate silver wand of authority tipped with a bronze starfish — it was one of several dozen lying there — and sought to play with it nervously. But he was too nervous for that. Within moments it shot out of his hands and clattered musically on the blue floor-tiles a dozen feet away. He knotted his wand-long fingers together tightly, and rocked in agitation.
The Blue Audience Chamber was lit only by a few guttering, soot-runneled candles. The central curtains had been raised, but this doubling of the room’s length only added to its gloom. The stairway going up into the blue minaret was a spiral of shadows. Beyond the dark archways leading to the porch, the great gray spindle balancing atop the copper chute gleamed mysteriously in the moonlight. A narrow silver ladder led up to its manhole, which stood open.
The candles cast on the blue-tiled inner wall several monstrous shadows of a bulbous figure seeming to bear two heads, the one atop the other. It was made by Samanda, who stood watching Glipkerio with stolid intentness, as one watches a lunatic up to tricks.
Finally Glipkerio, whose own gaze never ceased to twitch about at floor level, especially at the foot of blue curtains masking arched blue doorways, began to mumble, softly at first, then louder and louder, “I can’t stand it any more. Armed rats loose in the palace. Guardsmen gone. Hairs in my throat. That horrid girl. That indecent hairy jumping jack with the Mouser’s face. No butler or maid to answer my bell. Not even a page to trim the candles. And Hisvin hasn’t come. Hisvin’s not coming! I’ve no one. All’s lost!. _I can’t stand it. I’m leaving! World, adieu! Nehwon, good-bye! I seek a happier universe!”_
And with that warning, he dashed toward the porch — a streak of black toga from which a lone last pansy petal fluttered down.
Samanda, clumping after him heavily, caught him before he could climb the silver ladder, largely because he couldn’t get his hands unknotted to grip the rungs. She gasped him round with a huge arm and led him back toward the audience couch, meanwhile straightening and unslipping his fingers for him and saying, “Now, now, no boat trips tonight, little master. It’s on dry land we stay, your own dear palace. Only think: tomorrow, when this nonsense is past, we’ll have such lovely whippings. Meanwhile to guard you, pet, you’ve me, who am worth a regiment. Stick to Samanda!”
As if taking her at her literal word, Glipkerio, who had been confusedly pulling away, suddenly threw his arms around her neck and almost managed to seat himself upon her great belly.
A blue curtain had billowed wide, but it was only Glipkerio’s niece Elakeria in a gray silk dress that threatened momently to burst at the seams. The plump and lascivious girl had grown fatter than ever the past few days from stuffing herself with sweets to assuage her grief at her mother’s broken neck and the crucifixion of her pet marmoset, and even more to still her fears for herself. But at the moment a weak anger seemed to be doing the work of honey and sugar.
“Uncle!” she cried. “You must do something at once! The guardsmen are gone. Neither my maid nor page answered my bell, and when I went to fetch them, I found that insolent Reetha — wasn’t she to be whipped? — inciting all the pages and maids to revolt against you, or do something equally violent. And in the crook of her left arm sat a living gray-clad doll waving a cruel little sword — surely it was he who crucified Kwe-Kwe! — urging further enormities. I stole away unseen.”
“Revolt, eh?” Samanda scowled, setting Glipkerio aside and unsnapping whip and truncheon from her belt. “Elakeria, look out for Uncle here. You know, boat trips,” she added in a hoarse whisper, tapping her temple significantly. “Meanwhile I’ll give those naked sluts and minions a counter-revolution they’ll not forget.”
“Don’t leave me!” Glipkerio implored, throwing himself at her neck and lap again. “Now that Hisvin’s forgot me, you’re my only protection.”
A clock struck the quarter hour. Blue drapes parted and Hisvin came in with measured steps instead of his customary scuttling. “For good or ill, I come upon my instant,” he said. He wore his black cap and toga and over the latter a belt from which hung ink-pot, quill-case, and a pouch of scrolls. Hisvet and Frix came close after him, in sober silken black robes and stoles. The blue drapes closed behind them. All three black-framed faces were grave.
Hisvin paced toward Glipkerio, who somewhat shamed into composure by the orderly behavior of the newcomers was standing beanpole tall on his own two gold-sandaled feet, had adjusted a little the disordered folds of his toga, and straightened around his golden ringlets the string of limp vegetable matter which was all that was left of his pansy wreath.
“Oh most glorious overlord,” Hisvin intoned solemnly, “I bring you the worst news” — Glipkerio paled and began again to shake — “and the best.” Glipkerio recovered somewhat. “The worst first. The star whose coming made the heavens right has winked out, like a candle puffed on by a black demon, its fires extinguished by the black swells of the ocean of the sky. In short, she’s sunk without a trace and so I cannot speak my spell against the rats. Furthermore, it is my sad duty to inform you that the rats have already, for all practical purposes, conquered Lankhmar. All your soldiery is being decimated in the South Barracks. All the temples have been invaded and the very Gods _of_ Lankhmar slain without warning in their dry, spicy beds. The rats only pause, out of a certain courtesy which I will explain, before capturing your palace over your head.”
“Then all’s lost,” Glipkerio quavered chalk-pale and turning his head added peevishly, “I _told_ you so, Samanda! Naught remains for me but the last voyage. World, adieu! Nehwon, farewell! I seek a happier — ”
But this time his lunge toward the porch was stopped at once by his plump niece and stout palace mistress, hemming him close on either side.
“Now hear the best,” Hisvin continued in livelier accents. “At great personal peril I have put myself in touch with the rats. It transpires that they have an excellent civilization, finer in many respects than man’s — in fact, they have been secretly guiding the interests and growth of man for some time — oh ’tis a cozy, sweet civilization these wise rodents enjoy and ’twill delight your sense of fitness when you know it better! At all events the rats, now loving me well — ah, what fine diplomacies I’ve worked for you, dear master! — have entrusted me with their surrender terms, which are unexpectedly generous!”
He snatched from his pouch one of the scrolls in it, and saying, “I’ll summarize,” read: “…hostilities to cease at once … by Glipkerio’s command transmitted by his agents bearing his wands of authority … Fires to be extinguished and damage to Lankhmar repaired by Lankhmarts under direction of … et cetera. Damage to ratly tunnels, arcades, pleasances, privies, and other rooms to be repaired by humans. ‘Suitably reduced in size’ should go in there. All soldiers disarmed, bound, confined … and so forth. All cats, dogs, ferrets, and other vermin … well, naturally. All ships and all Lankhmarts abroad … that’s clear enough. Ah, here’s the spot! Listen now. Thereafter each Lankhmart to go about his customary business, free in all his actions and possessions — _free_, you hear that? — subject only to the commands of his personal rat or rats, who shall crouch upon his shoulder or otherwise dispose themselves on or within his clothing, as they shall see fit, and share his bed. But _your_ rats,” he went on swiftly, pointing to Glipkerio, who had gone very pale and whose body and limbs had begun again their twitchings and his features their tics, “_your_ rats shall, out of deference to your high position, not be rats at all! — but rather my daughter Hisvet and, temporarily, her maid Frix, who shall attend you day and night, watch and watch, granting your every wish on the trifling condition that you obey their every command. What could be fairer, my dear master?”
But Glipkerio had already gone once more into his, “World, adieu! Nehwon, farewell! I seek a — ” meanwhile straining toward the porch and convulsing up and down in his efforts to be free of Samanda’s and Elakeria’s restraining arms. Of a sudden, however, he stopped still, cried, “Of course I’ll sign!” and grabbed for the parchment. Hisvin eagerly led him to his audience couch and the table, meanwhile readying his writing equipment.
But here a difficulty developed. Glipkerio was shaking so that he could hardly hold pen, let alone write. His first effort with the quill sent a comet’s tail of inkdrops across the clothing of those around him and Hisvin’s leathery face. All efforts to guide his hand, first by gentleness, then by main force, failed.
Hisvin snapped his fingers in desperate impatience, then pointed a sudden finger at his daughter. She produced a flute from her black silken robe and began to pipe a sweet yet drowsy melody. Samanda and Elakeria held Glipkerio face down on his couch, the one at his shoulders, the other at his ankles, while Frix, kneeling with one knee on the small of his back began with her fingertips to stroke his spine from skull to tail in time to Hisvet’s music, favoring her left hand with its bandaged palm.
Glipkerio continued to convulse upward at regular intervals, but gradually the violence of these earthquakes of the body decreased and Frix was able to transfer some of her rhythmic strokings to his flailing arms.
Hisvin, hard a-pace and snapping his fingers again, his shadows marching like those of giant rats moving confusedly and size-changingly against each other across the blue tiles, demanded suddenly on noting the wands of authority, “Where are your pages you promised to have here?”
Glipkerio responded dully, “In their quarters. In revolt. You stole my guards who would have controlled them. Where are your Mingols?”
Hisvin stopped dead in his pacing and frowned. His gaze went questioningly toward the unmoving blue door-drapes through which he had entered.
Fafhrd, breathing a little heavily, drew himself up into one of the belfry’s eight windows and sat on its sill and scanned the bells.
There were eight in all and all large: five of bronze, three of browned-iron, coated with the sea-pale verdigris and earth-dark rust of eons. Any ropes had rotted away, centuries ago for all he knew. Below them was dark emptiness spanned by four narrow flat-topped stone arches. He tried one of them with his foot. It held.
He set the smallest bell, a bronze one, swinging. There was no sound except for a dismal creaking.
He first peered, then felt up inside the bell. The clapper was gone, its supporting link rusted away.
All the other bells’ clappers were likewise gone, presumably fallen to the bottom of the tower.
He prepared to use his ax to beat out the alarum, but then he saw one of the fallen clappers lying on a stone arch.
He lifted it with both hands, like a somewhat ponderous club, and moving about recklessly on the arches, struck each bell in turn. Rust showered him from the iron ones.
Their massed clangor sounded louder than mountainside thunder when lightning strikes from a cloud close by. The bells were the least musical Fafhrd had ever heard. Some made swelling beats together, which periodically tortured the ear. They must have been shaped and cast by a master of discord. The brazen bells shrieked, clanged, clashed, roared, twanged, jangled, and screamingly wrangled. The iron bells groaned rusty-throated, sobbed like leviathan, throbbed as the heart of universal death, and rolled like a black swell striking a smooth rock coast. They exactly suited the Gods _of_ Lankhmar, from what Fafhrd had heard of the latter.
The metallic uproar began to fade somewhat and he realized that he was becoming deafened. Nevertheless he kept on until he had struck each bell three times. Then he peered out the window by which he had entered.
His first impression was that half the human crowd was looking straight at _him_. Then he realized it must be the noise of the bells which had turned upward those moonlit faces.
There were many more kneelers before the temple now. Other Lankhmarts were pouring up the Street of the Gods from the east, as if being driven.
The erect, black-togaed rats still stood in the same tiny line below him, auraed by grim authority despite their size, and now they were flanked by two squads of armored rats, each bearing a small weapon which puzzled Fafhrd, straining his eyes, until he recalled the tiny crossbows which had been used aboard _Squid_.
The reverberations of the bells had died away, or sunk too low for his deafened ears to note, but then he began to hear, faintly at first, murmuring and cries of hopeless horror from below.
Gazing across the crowd again, he saw black rats climbing unresisting up some of the kneeling figures, while many, of the others already had something black squatting on their right shoulders.
There came from directly below a creaking and groaning and rending. The ancient doors of the temple of the Gods _of_ Lankhmar were thrust wide open.
The white faces that had been gazing upward now stared at the porch.
The black-togaed rats and their soldiery faced around.
There strode four abreast from the wide-open doorway a company of fearfully thin brown figures, black-togaed too. Each bore a black staff. The brown was of three sorts: aged linen mummy-banding, brittle parchment-like skin stretched tight over naught but skeleton, and naked old brown bones themselves.
The crossbow-rats loosed a volley. The skeletal brown striders came on without pause. The black-togaed rats stood their ground, squeaking imperiously. Another useless volley from the tiny crossbows. Then, like so many rapiers, black staffs thrust out. Each rat they touched shriveled where he stood, nor moved again. Other rats came scurrying in from the crowd and were similarly slain. The brown company advanced at an even pace, like doom on the march.
There were screams then and the human crowd before the temple began to melt, racing down side streets and even dashing back into the temples from which they had fled. Predictably, the folk of Lankhmar were more afraid of their own gods come to their rescue than of their foes.
Himself somewhat aghast at what his ringing had roused, Fafhrd climbed down the belfry, telling himself that he must dodge the eerie battle below and seek out the Mouser in Glipkerio’s vast palace.
At the corner of the temple’s foot, the black kitten became aware of the climber high above, recognized him as the huge man he had scratched and loved, and realized that the force holding him here had something to do with that man.
The Gray Mouser loped purposefully out of the palace kitchen and up a corridor leading toward the royal dwelling quarters. Though still tiny, he was at last dressed. Beside him strode Reetha, armed with a long and needle-pointed skewer for broiling cutlets in a row. Close behind them marched a disorderly-ranked host of pages armed with cleavers and mallets, and maids with knives and toasting forks.
The Mouser had insisted that Reetha not carry him on this foray and the girl had let him have his way. And truly it made him feel more manly again to be going on his own two feet and from time to time swishing Scalpel menacingly through the air.
Still, he had to admit, he would feel a lot better were he his rightful size again, and Fafhrd at his side. Sheelba had told him the effects of the black potion would last for nine hours. He had drunk it a few minutes at most past three. So he should regain his true size a little after midnight, if Sheelba had not lied.
He glanced up at Reetha, more huge than any giantess and bearing a gleaming steel weapon tall as a catboat’s mast, and felt further reassured.
“Onward!” he squeaked to his naked army, though he tried to pitch his voice as low as possible. “Onward to save Lankhmar and her overlord from the rats!”
Fafhrd dropped the last few feet to the temple’s roof and faced around. The situation below had altered considerably.
The human folk were gone — that is, the living human folk.
The skeletal brown striders had all emerged through the door below and were marching west down the Street of the Gods — a procession of ugly ghosts, except these wraiths were opaque and their bony feet clicked harshly on the cobbles. The moonlit porch, steps, and flagstones behind them were blackly freckled with dead rats.
But the striders were moving more slowly now and were surrounded by shadows blacker than the moon could throw — a veritable sea of black rats lapping the striders and being augmented faster from all sides than the deadly staves could strike them down.
From two areas ahead, to either side of the Street of the Gods, flaming darts came arching and struck in the fore-ranks of the striders. These missiles, unlike the crossbow darts, took effect. Wherever they struck, old linen and resin-impregnated skin began to flicker and flame. The striders came to a halt, ceased slaying rats, and devoted themselves to plucking out the flaming darts sticking in them and beating out the flames on their persons.
Another wave of rats came racing down the Street of the Gods from the Marsh Gate end, and behind them on three great horses three riders leaning low in their saddles and sword-slashing at the small beasts. The horses and the cloaks and hoods of the riders were inky black. Fafhrd, who thought himself incapable of more shivers, felt another. It was as if Death itself, in three persons, had entered the scene.
The rodent fire-artillery, slewed partly around, let off at the black riders a few flaming darts which missed.
In return the black riders charged hoof-stamping and sword-slashing into the two artillery areas. Then they faced toward the brown, skeletal striders, several of whom still smoldered and flickered, and doffed their black hoods and mantles.
Fafhrd’s face broke into a grin that would have seemed most inappropriate to one knowing he feared an apparition of Death, but not knowing his experiences of the last few days.
Seated on the three black horses were three tall skeletons gleaming white in the moonlight, and with a lover’s certainty he recognized the first as being Kreeshkra’s.
She might, of course, be seeking him out to slay him for his faithlessness. Nevertheless, as almost any other lover in like circumstances — though seldom, true, near the midst of a natural-supernatural battle — he grinned a rather egotistic grin.
He lost not a moment in beginning his descent.
Meanwhile Kreeshkra, for it was indeed she, was thinking as she gazed at the Gods _of_ Lankhmar, _Well, I suppose brown bones are better than none at all. Still, they seem a poor fire risk. Ho, here come more rats! What a filthy city! And where oh where is my abominable Mud Man?_
The black kitten mewed anxiously at the temple’s foot where he awaited Fafhrd’s arrival.
Glipkerio, calm as a cushion now, completely soothed by Frix’s massage and Hisvet’s piping, was halfway through signing his name, forming the letters more ornately and surely than he ever had in his life, when the blue drapes in the largest archway were torn down and there pressed into the great chamber on silent naked feet the Mouser’s and Reetha’s forces.
Gilpkerio gave a great twitch, upsetting the ink bottle on the parchment of the surrender terms, and sending his quill winging off like an arrow.
Hisvin, Hisvit, and even Samanda backed away from him toward the porch, daunted at least momentarily by the newcomers — and indeed there was something dire about that naked, shaven youthful army be-weaponed with kitchen tools, their eyes wild, their lips a-snarl or pressed tightly together. Hisvin had been expecting his Mingols at last and so got a double shock.
Elakeria hurried after them, crying, “They’ve come to slay us all! It’s the revolution!”
Frix held her ground, smiling excitedly.
The Mouser raced across the blue-tiled floor, sprang up on Glipkerio’s couch and balanced himself on its golden back. Reetha followed rapidly and stood beside him, menacing around with her skewer.
Unmindful that Glipkerio was flinching away, pale yellow eyes peering affrightedly from a coarse fabric of criss-crossed fingers, the Mouser squeaked loudly, “Oh mighty overlord, no revolution this! Instead, we have come to save you from your enemies! That one” — he pointed at Hisvin — “is in league with the rats. Indeed, he is by blood more rat than man. Under his toga you’ll find a tail. I saw him in the tunnels below, member of the Rat Council of Thirteen, plotting your overthrow. It is he — ”
Meanwhile Samanda had been regaining her courage. Now she charged her underlings like a black rhinoceros, her globe-shaped, pin-skewered coiffure more than enough horn. Laying about with her black whip, she roared fearsomely, “Revolt, will you? On your knees, scullions and sluts! Say your prayers!”
Taken by surprise and readily falling back into an ingrained habit, their fiery hopes quenched by familiar abuse, the naked slim figures inched away from her to either side.
Reetha, however, grew pink with anger. Forgetting the Mouser and all else but her rage, envenomed by many injuries, she ran after Samanda, crying to her fellow-slaves, “Up and at her, you cowards! We’re fifty to one against her!” And with that she thrust out mightily with her skewer and jabbed Samanda from behind.
The palace mistress leaped ponderously forward, her keys and chains swinging wildly from her black leather belt. She lashed the last maids out of her way and pounded off at a thumping run toward the servants’ quarters.
Reetha cried over shoulder, “After her, all! — before she rouses the cooks and barbers to her aid!” and was off in sprinting pursuit.
The maids and pages hardly hesitated at all. Reetha had refired their hot hatreds as readily as Samanda had quenched them. To play heroes and heroines rescuing Lankhmar was moonshine. To have vengeance on their old tormentor was blazing sunlight. They all raced after Reetha.
The Mouser, still balancing on the fluted golden back of Glipkerio’s couch and mouthing his dramatic oration, realized somewhat belatedly that he had lost his army and was still only doll size. Hisvin and Hisvet, drawing long knives from under their black togas, rapidly circled between him and the doorway through which his forces had fled. Hisvin looked vicious and Hisvet unpleasantly like her father — the Mouser had never before noted the striking family resemblance. They began to close in.
To his left Elakeria snatched up a handful of the wands of office and raised them threateningly. To the Mouser, even those flimsy rods were huge as pikes.
To his right Glipkerio, still cringing away, reached down surreptitiously for his light battle-ax. Evidently the Mouser’s loyal squeaks had gone unheard, or not been believed.
The Mouser wondered which way to jump.
Behind him Frix murmured softly, though to the Mouser’s ears still somewhat boomingly, “Exit kitchen tyrant pursued by pages unclad and maids in a state of nature, leaving our hero beset by an ogre and two — or is it three? — ogresses.”