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Mouser 5-14

*Chapter Fourteen*
Fafhrd swiftly climbed, by the low moonlight, the high Marsh Wall of Lankhmar at the point to which Sheelba had delivered him, a good bowshot south of the Marsh Gate. “At the gate you might run into your black pursuers,” Sheelba had told him. Fafhrd had doubted it. True, the black riders had been moving like a storm wind, but Sheelba’s hut had raced across the sea-grass like a low-scudding pocket hurricane; surely he had arrived ahead of them. Yet he had put up no argument. Wizards were above all else persuasive salesmen, whether they flooded you off your feet with words, like Ningauble, or manipulated you with meaningful silences, like Sheelba. For the swamp wizard had otherwise maintained his cranky quiet throughout the entire rocking, pitching, swift-skidding trip, from which Fafhrd’s stomach was still queasy.
He found plenty of good holds for hand and foot in the ancient wall. Climbing it was truly child’s play to one who had scaled in his youth Obelisk Polaris in the frosty Mountains of the Giants. He was far more concerned with what he might meet at the top of the wall, where he would be briefly helpless against a foe footed above him.
But more than all else — and increasingly so — he was puzzled by the darkness and silence with which the city was wrapped. Where was the battle-din; where were the flames? Or if Lankhmar had already been subdued, which despite Ningauble’s optimism seemed most likely from the fifty-to-one odds against her, where were the screams of the tortured, the shrieks of the raped, and all the gleeful clatter and shout of the victors?
He reached the wall’s top and suddenly drew himself up and vaulted through a wide embrasure down onto the wide parapet, ready to draw Graywand and his ax. But the parapet was empty as far as be could see in either direction.
Wall Street below was dark, and empty too as far as he could tell. Cash Street, stretching west and flooded with pale moonlight from behind him, was visibly bare of figures. While the silence was even more marked than when he’d been climbing. It seemed to fill the great, walled city, like water brimming a cup.
Fafhrd felt spooked. Had the conquerors of Lankhmar already departed? — carrying off all its treasure and inhabitants in some unimaginably huge fleet or caravan? Had they shut up themselves and their gagged victims in the silent houses for some rite of mass torture in darkness? Was it a demon, not human army which had beset the city and vanished its inhabitants? Had the very earth gaped for victor and vanquished alike and then shut again? Or was Ningauble’s whole tale wizardly flimflam? — yet even that least unlikely explanation still left unexplained the city’s ghostly desolation.
Or was there a fierce battle going on under his eyes at this very moment, and he by some spell of Ningauble or Sheelba unable to see, hear, or even scent it? — until, perchance, he had fulfilled the geas of the bells which Ningauble had laid on him.
He still did not like the idea of his bells-mission. His imagination pictured the Gods _of_ Lankhmar resting in their brown mummy-wrappings and their rotted black togas, their bright black eyes peeping from between resin-impregnated bandages and their deadly black staves of office beside them, waiting another call from the city that forgot yet feared them and which they in turn hated yet guarded. Waking with naked hand a clutch of spiders in a hole in desert rocks seemed wiser than waking such. Yet a geas was a geas and must be fulfilled.
He hurried down the nearest dark stone stairs three steps at a time and headed west on Cash Street, which paralleled Crafts Street a block to the south. He half imagined he brushed unseen figures. Crossing curvy Cheap Street, dark and untenanted as the others, he thought he heard a murmuring and chanting from the north, so faint that it must come from at least as far away as the Street of Gods. But he held to his predetermined course, which was to follow Cash Street to Nun Street, then three blocks north to the accursed bell-tower.
Whore Street, which was even more twisty than Cheap Street, looked tenantless too, but he was hardly half a block beyond it when he heard the tramp of boots and the clink of armor behind him. Ducking into the narrow shadows, he watched a double squad of guardsmen cross hurriedly through the moonlight, going south on Whore Street in the direction of the South Barracks. They were crowded close together, watched every way, and carried their weapons at the ready, despite the apparent absence of foe. This seemed to confirm Fafhrd’s notion of an army of invisibles. Feeling more spooked than ever, he continued rapidly on his way.
And now he began to note, here and there, light leaking out from around the edges of a shuttered upper window. These dim-drawn oblongs only increased his feeling of supernatural dread. Anything, he told himself, would be better than this locked-in silence, now broken only by the faint echoing tread of his own boots on the moonlit cobbles. And at the end of his trip: mummies!
Somewhere, faintly, muffled, eleven o’clock knelled. Then of a sudden, crossing narrow, black-brimming Silver Street, he heard a multitudinous pattering, like rain — save that the stars were bright overhead except for the moon’s dimming of them, and he felt no drops. He began to run.
Aboard _Squid_, the kitten, as if he had received a call which he might not disregard despite all dreads, made the long leap from the scuppers to the dock, clawed his way up onto the latter and hurried off into the dark, his black hair on end and his eyes emerald bright with fear and danger-readiness.
Glipkerio and Samanda sat in his Whip Room, reminiscing and getting a tipsy glow on, to put them in the right mood for Reetha’s thrashing. The fat palace mistress had swilled tankards of dark wine of Tovilyis until her black wool dress was soaked with sweat and salty beads stood on each hair of her ghostly black mustache. While her overlord sipped violet wine of Kiraay, which she had fetched from the upper pantry when no butler or page answered the ring of the silver and even the brazen summoning-bell. She’d said, “They’re scared to stir since your guardsmen went off. I’ll welt them properly — but only when you’ve had your special fun, little master.”
Now, for the nonce neglecting all the rare and begemmed instruments of pain around them and blessedly forgetting the rodent menace to Lankhmar, their thoughts had returned to simpler and happier days. Glipkerio, his pansy wreath awry and somewhat wilted, was saying with a tittering eagerness, “Do you recall when I brought you my first kitten to throw in the kitchen fire?”
“Do I?” Samanda retorted with affectionate scorn. “Why, little master, I remember when you brought me your first fly, to show me how neatly you could pluck off his wings and legs. You were only a toddler, but already skinny-tall.”
“Yes, but about that kitten,” Glipkerio persisted, violet wine dribbling down his chin as he took a hasty and tremble-handed swallow. “It was black with blue eyes newly unfilmed. Radomix was trying to stop me — he lived at the palace then — but you sent him away bawling.”
“I did indeed,” Samanda concurred. “The cotton-hearted brat! And I remember how the kitten screamed and frizzled, and how you cried afterwards because you hadn’t him to throw in again. To divert your mind and cheer you, I stripped and whipped an apprentice maid as skinny-tall as yourself and with long blonde braids. That was before you got your thing about hair,” — she wiped her mustache — “and had all the girls and boys shaved. I thought it was time you graduated to manlier pleasures, and sure enough you showed your excitement in no uncertain fashion!” And with a whoop of laughter she reached across and thumbed him indelicately.
Excited by this tickling and his thoughts, Lankhmar’s overlord stood up cypress-tall-and-black in his toga, though no cypress ever twitched as he did, except perhaps in an earthquake or under most potent witchcraft. “Come,” he cried. “Eleven’s struck. We’ve barely time before I must haste me to the Blue Audience Chamber to meet with Hisvin and save the city.”
“Right,” Samanda affirmed, levering herself up with her brawny forearms pulling at her knees and then pushing the pinching armchair off her large rear. “Which whips was it you’d picked now for the naughty and traitorous minx?”
“None, none,” Glipkerio cried with impatient glee. “In the end that well-oiled old black dog-whip hanging; from your belt always seems best. Hurry we, dear Samanda, hurry!”
Reetha shot up in crispy-linened bed as she heard hinges creak. Shaking nightmares from her smooth-shaven head, she fumbled frantically about for the bottle whose draining would bring her protective oblivion.
She put it to her lips, but paused a moment before upending it. The door still hadn’t opened and the creaking had been strangely tiny and shrill. Glancing over the edge of the bed, she saw that another door not quite a foot high had opened outward at floor level In the seamless-seeming wood paneling. Through it there stepped swiftly and silently, ducking his head a trifle, a well-formed and leanly muscular little man, carrying in one hand a gray bundle and in the other what seemed to be a long toy sword as naked as himself.
He closed the door behind him, so that it once more seemed not to be there, and gazed about piercingly.
“Gray Mouser!” Reetha yelled, springing from bed and throwing herself down on her knees beside him “You’ve come back to me!”
He winced, lifting his burdened tiny hands to his ears.
“Reetha,” he begged, “don’t shout like that again. It blasts my brain.” He spoke slowly and as deep-pitched as he could, but to her his voice was shrill and rapid, though intelligible.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered contritely, restraining the impulse to pick him up and cuddle him to her bosom.
“You’d better be,” he told her brusquely. “Now find something heavy and put it against this door. There’s those coming after, whom you wouldn’t want to meet. Quick about it, girl!”
She didn’t stir from her knees, but eagerly suggested, “Why not work your magic and make yourself big again?”
“I haven’t the stuff to work that magic,” he told her exasperatedly. “I had a chance at a vial of it and like any other sex-besotted fool didn’t think to swipe it. Now jump to it, Reetha!”
Suddenly realizing the strength of her bargaining position, she merely leaned closer to him and smiling archly though lovingly, asked, “With what doll-tiny bitch have you been consorting now? No, you needn’t answer that, but before I stir me to help you, you must give me six hairs from your darling head. I have good reason for my request.”
The Mouser started to argue insanely with her, then thought better of it and snicked off with Scalpel a small switch of his locks and laid then in her huge, crisscross furrowed, gleaming palm, where they were fine as baby hairs, though slightly longer and darker than most.
She stood up briskly, marched to the night table, and dropped them in Glipkerio’s night draught. Then dusting off her hands above the goblet, she looked around. The most suitable object she could see for the Mouser’s purpose was the golden casket of unset jewels. She lugged it into place against the small door, taking the Mouser’s word as to where the small door exactly was.
“That should hold them for a bit,” he said, greedily noting for future reference the rainbow gems bigger than his fists, “but ’twere best you also fetch — ”
Dropping to her knees, she asked somewhat wistfully, “Aren’t you ever going to be big again?”
“Don’t boom the floor! Yes, of course! In an hour or less, if I can trust my tricksy, treacherous wizard. Now, Reetha, while I dress me, please fetch — ”
A key chinked dulcetly and a bolt thudded softly in its channel. The Mouser felt himself whirled through the air by and with Reetha onto the soft springy white bed, and a white translucent sheet whirled over them.
He heard the big door open.
At that moment a hand on his head pressed him firmly down into a squat and as he was about to protest, Reetha whispered — it was a growl like light surf — “Don’t make a bump in the sheet. Whatever happens, hold still and hide for your dear life’s sake.”
A voice like battle trumpets blared then, making the Mouser glad of what shielding the sheet gave his ears. “The nasty girl’s crawled in my bed! Oh, the disgust of it! I feel faint. Wine! Ah! _Aaarrrggghh_ — ” There came ear-shaking chokings, spewings, and spittings, and then the battle trumpets again, somewhat muffled, as if stuffed with flannel, though even more enraged: “The filthy and demonic slut has put hairs in my drink! Oh whip her, Samanda, until she’s everywhere welted like a bamboo screen! Lash her until she licks my feet and kisses each toe for mercy!”
Then another voice, this one like a dozen huge kettle-drums, thundering through the sheet and pounding the Mouser’s tinied goldleaf-thin eardrums. “That I will, little master. Nor heed you, if you ask I desist. Come out of there, girl, or must I whip you out?”
Reetha scrambled toward the head of the bed, away from that voice. The Mouser followed crouching after her, though the mattress heaved like a white-decked ship in a storm, the sheet figuring as an almost deck-low ceiling of fog. Then suddenly that fog was whirled away, as if by a supernal wind, and there glared down the gigantic double red-and-black sun of Samanda’s face, inflamed by liquor and anger, and of her globe-dressed, pin-transfixed black hair. And the sun had a black tail — Samanda’s raised whip.
The Mouser bounded toward her across the disordered bed, brandishing Scalpel and still lugging under his other arm the gray bundle of his clothes.
The whip, which had been aimed at Reetha, changed direction and came whistling toward him. He sprang straight up with all his strength and it passed just under his naked feet like a black dragon’s tail, the whistling abruptly lowering in pitch. By good luck keeping his footing as he came down, he leaped again toward Samanda, stabbed her with Scalpel in her black-wool-draped huge kneecap, and sprang down to the parquet floor.
Like a browned-iron thunderbolt, a great ax-head bit into the wood close by him, jarring him to his teeth. Glipkerio had snatched a light battle-ax from his weapon-rack with surprising speed and wielded it with unlikely accuracy.
The Mouser darted under the bed, raced across that — to him — low-ceilinged dark wide portico, emerged on the other side and doubled swiftly back around the foot of the bed to slash at the back of Glipkerio’s ankle.
But this ham-stringing stroke failed when Glipkerio turned around. Samanda, limping just a little, came to her overlord’s side. Gigantic ax and whip were again lifted at the Mouser.
With a rather happy hysterical scream that almost ruined the Mouser’s eardrums for good, Reetha hurled her crystal wine-flagon. It passed close between Samanda’s and Glipkerio’s heads, hitting neither of them, but staying their strokes at the Mouser.
All this while, unnoticed in the racket and turmoil, the golden jewel-box had been moving away, jolt by tiny jolt, from the wall. Now the door behind it was open wide enough for a rat to get through, and Hreest emerged followed by his armed band — three masked sword-rats in all, the other two green-uniformed, and three naked-faced pike-rats in browned-iron helmets and mail.
Utterly terrified by this eruption, Glipkerio raced from the room, followed only less slowly by Samanda, whose heavy treadings shook the wooden floor like earthquake shocks.
Mad for battle and also greatly relieved to face foes his own size, the Mouser went on guard, using his clothes bundle as a sort of shield and crying out fearsomely, “Come and be killed, Hreest!”
But at that instant he felt himself snatched up with stomach-wrenching speed to Reetha’s breasts.
“Put me down! Put me down!” he yelled, still in a battle-rage, but futilely, for the drunken girl carried him reelingly out the door and slammed it behind her — once more the Mouser’s eardrums were assaulted — slammed it on a rat-pike.
Samanda and Glipkerio were running toward a distant, wide, blue curtain, but Reetha ran the other way, toward the kitchen and the servants’ quarters, and the Mouser was perforce carried with her — his gray bundle bouncing about, his pin-sword useless, and despite his shrill protests and tears of wrath.
The rats everywhere launched their grand assault on Lankhmar Above a half hour before midnight, striking chiefly by way of golden rat-holes. There were a few premature sorties, as on Silver Street, and elsewhere a few delays, as at rat-holes discovered and blocked by humans at the last moment, but on the whole the attack was simultaneous.
First to emerge from Lankhmar Below were wild troops of four-foot goers, a fierce riderless cavalry, savage rats from the stinking tunnels and warrens under the slums of Lankhmar, rodents knowing few if any civilized amenities and speaking at most a pidgin-Lankhmarese helped out with chitters and squeals. Some fought only with tooth and claw like the veriest primitives. Among them went berserkers and special-mission groups.
Then came the assassins and the incendiaries with their torches, resins, and oils — for the weapon of fire, hitherto unused, was part of the grand plan, even though the rats’ upper-level tunnels were menaced thereby. It was calculated that victory would be gained swiftly enough for the humans to be enforced to put out the blazes.
Finally came the armed and armored rats, all going biped except for those packing extra missiles and parts of light-artillery pieces to be assembled above ground.
Previous forays had been made almost entirely through rat-holes in cellars and ground floors and by way of street-drains and the like. But tonight’s grand assault was delivered whenever possible through rat-holes on upper floors and through rat-ways that emerged in attics, surprising the humans in the supposedly safe chambers in which they had shut themselves and driving them in panic into the streets.
It was turn-about from previous nights and days, when the rats had risen in black waves and streams. Now they dropped like a black indoor rain and leaked in rat-big gushes from walls thought sound, bringing turmoil and terror. Here and there, chiefly under eaves, flames began to flicker.
The rats emerged inside almost every temple and cultish hovel lining the Street of the Gods, driving out the worshipers until that wide avenue was milling with humans too terrified to dare the dark side streets or create more than a few pockets of organized resistance
In the high-windowed assembly hall of the South Barracks, Olegnya Mingolsbane loudly sputter-quavered to a weary audience which following custom had left their weapons outside — the soldiers of Lankhmar had been known to use them on irritating or merely boresome speakers. As he perorated, “You who have fought the black behemoth and leviathan, you who have stood firm against Mingol and Mirphian, you who have broken the spear-squares of King Krimaxius and routed his fortressed elephants, that _you_ should be daunted by dirty vermin — ” eight large rat-holes opened high in the back wall and from these sinister orifices a masked battery of crossbow artillery launched their whirring missiles at the aged and impassioned general. Five struck home, one down his gullet, and gargling horridly he fell from the rostrum.
Then the fire of the crossbows was turned on the startled yet lethargic audience, some of whom had been applauding Olegnya’s demise as if it had been a carnival turn. From other high rat-holes actual fire was tossed down in the forms of white phosphorus and flaming, oil-soaked, resin-hearted bundles of rags, while from various low golden rat-holes, noxious vapors brewed in the sewers were bellows-driven.
Groups of soldiers and constables broke for the doors and found them barred from the outside — one of the most striking achievements of the special-missions groups, made possible by Lankhmar having things arranged so that she could massacre her own soldiers in times of mutiny. With smuggled weapons and those of officers, a counter-fire was turned on the rat-holes, but they were difficult targets and for the most part the men of war milled about as helplessly as the worshipers in the Street of the Gods, coughing and crying out more troubled for the present by the stinking vapors and the choking fumes of little flames here and there than by the larger fire-danger.
Meanwhile the black kitten was flattening himself on top of a cask in the granaries area while a party of armed rats trooped by. The small beast shivered with fear, yet was drawn on deeper and deeper into the city by a mysterious urging which he did not understand, yet could not ignore.
Hisvin’s house had in its top floor a small room, the door and window shutters of which were all tightly barred from the inside so that a witness, if there could have been one, would have wondered how this barring had been accomplished in such fashion as to leave the room empty.
A single thick, blue-burning candle, which had somewhat fouled the air, revealed no furniture whatsoever in the room. It showed six wide, shallow basins that were part of the tiled floor. Three of these basins were filled with a thick pinkish liquid across which ever and anon a slow quivering ran. Each pink pool had a border of black dust with which it did not commingle. Along one wall were shelves of small vials, the white ones near the floor, the black ones higher.
A tiny door opened at floor level. Hisvin, Hisvet, and Frix filed silently out. Each took a white vial and walked to a pink pool and then unhesitatingly down into it. The dark dust and pinkish liquid slowed but did not stop their steps. It moved out in sluggish ripples from their knees. Soon each stood thigh-deep at a pool’s center. Then each drained his vial.
For a long instant there was no change, only the ripples intersecting and dying by the candle’s feeble gleam.
Then each figure began to grow while soon the pools were visibly diminished. In a dozen heartbeats they were empty of fluid and dust alike, while in them Hisvin, Hisvet, and Frix stood human-high, dry-shod, and clad all in black.
Hisvin unbarred a window opening on the Street of the Gods, threw wide the shutters, drew a deep breath, stooped to peer out briefly and cautiously, then turned him crouching to the girls.
“It has begun” he said somberly. “Haste we now to the Blue Audience Chamber. Time presses. I will alert our Mingols to assemble and follow us.” He scuttled past them to the door. “Come!”
Fafhrd drew himself up onto the roof of the temple of the Gods _of_ Lankhmar and paused for a backward and downward look before tackling the belfry, although so far this climb had been easier even than that of the city’s wall.
He wanted to know what all the screaming was about.
Across the street were several dark houses, first among them Hisvin’s, while beyond them rose Glipkerio’s Rainbow Palace with its moonlit, pastel-hued minarets, tallest of them the blue, like a troupe of tall slender dancing girls behind a phalanx of black-robed squat priests.
Immediately below him was the temple’s unroofed yet dark front porch and the low, wide steps leading up to it from the street. Fafhrd had not even tried the verdigrised, copper-bound, worm-eaten doors below him. He had had no mind to go stumbling around hunting for a stairs in the inner dark and dust, where his groping hands might touch mummy-wrapped, black-togaed forms which might not lie still like other dead earth, but stir with crotchety limitless anger, like ancient yet not quite senile kings who did not relish their sleep disturbed at midnight. On both counts, an outside climb had seemed healthier and likewise the awakening of the Gods _of_ Lankhmar, if they were to be wakened, better by a distant bell than by a touch on a skeletal shoulder wrapped in crumbling linen or on a bony foot.
When Fafhrd had begun his short climb, the Street of the Gods had been empty at this end, though from the open doors of its gorgeous temples — the temples of the Gods _in_ Lankhmar — had spilled yellow light and come the mournful sound of many litanies, mixed with the sharper accents of impromptu prayers and beseechings.
But now the street was churning with white-faced folk, while others were still rushing screaming from temple doorways. Fafhrd still couldn’t see what they were running from, and once more he thought of an army of invisibles — after all, he had only to imagine Ghouls with invisible bones — but then he noted that most of the shriekers and churners were looking downward toward their feet and the cobbles. He recollected the eerie pattering which had sent him running away from Silver Street. He remembered what Ningauble had asserted about the huge numbers and hidden source of the army besieging Lankhmar. And he recalled that _Clam_ had been sunk and _Squid_ captured by rats working chiefly alone. A wild suspicion swiftly bloomed in him.
Meanwhile some of the temple refugees had thrown themselves to their knees in front of the dingy fane on which he stood, and were bumping their heads on the cobbles and lower steps and uttering frenzied petitions for aid. As usual, Lankhmar was appealing to her own grim, private gods only in a moment of direst need, when all else failed. While a bold few directly below Fafhrd had mounted the dark porch and were beating on and dragging at the ancient portals.
There came a loud creaking and groaning and a sound of rending. For a moment Fafhrd thought that those below him, having broken in, were going to rush inside. But then he saw them hurrying back down the steps in attitudes of dread and prostrating themselves like the others.
The great doors had opened until there was a hand’s breadth between them. Then through that narrow gap there issued from the temple a torchlit procession of tiny figures which advanced and ranged themselves along the forward edge of the porch.
They were two score or so of large rats walking erect and wearing black togas. Four of them carried lance-tall torches flaming brightly white-blue at their tips. The others each carried something that Fafhrd, staring down eagle-eyed, could not quite discern — a little black staff? — There were three whites among them, the rest black.
A hush fell on the Street of the Gods, as if at some secret signal the humans tormenters had ceased their persecutions.
The black-togaed rats cried out shrilly in unison, so that even Fafhrd heard them clearly, “We have slain your gods, O Lankhmarts! We are your gods now, O folk of Lankhmar. Submit yourselves to our worldly brothers and you will not be harmed. Hark to their commands. Your gods are dead, O Lankhmars! We are your gods!”
The humans who had abased themselves continued to do so and to bump their heads. Others of the crowd imitated them.
Fafhrd thought for a moment of seeking something to hurl down on that dreadful little black-clad line which had cowed humanity. But the nasty notion came to him that if the Mouser had been reduced to a fraction of himself and able to live far under the deepest cellar, what could it mean but that the Mouser had been transformed into a rat by wicked magic, Hisvin’s most likely? In slaying any rat, he might slay his comrade.
He decided to stick to Ningauble’s instructions. He began to climb the belfry with great reaches and pulls of his long arms and doublings and straightenings of his still longer legs.
The black kitten, coming around a far corner of the same temple, bugged his little eyes at the horrid tableaux of black-togaed rats. He was tempted to flee, yet moved never a muscle as a soldier who knows he has a duty to perform, though has forgotten or not yet learned the nature of that duty.

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