Fafhrd awoke consumed by thirst and amorous yearning, and with a certainty that it was late afternoon. He knew where he was and, in a general way, what had been happening, but his memory for the past half day or so was at the moment foggy. His situation was that of a man who stands on a patch of ground with mountains sharp-etched all around, but the middle distance hidden by a white sea of ground-mist.
He was in leafy Kvarch Nar, chief of the Eight so-called Cities — truly, none of them could compare with Lankhmar, the only city worth the name on the Inner Sea. And he was in his room in the straggling, low, unwalled, yet shapely wooden palace of Movarl. Four days ago the Mouser had sailed for Lankhmar aboard _Squid_ with a cargo of lumber which the thrifty Slinoor had shipped, to report to Glipkerio the safe delivery of four-fifths of the grain, the eerie treacheries of Hisvin and Hisvet, and the whole mad adventure. Fafhrd, however, had chosen to remain a while in Kvarch Nar, for to him it was a fun place, not just because he had found a fun-loving, handsome girl there, one Hrenlet.
More particularly, Fafhrd was snug abed but feeling somewhat constricted — clearly he had not taken off his boots or any other of his clothing or even unbelted his short-ax, the blade of which, fortunately covered by its thick leather sheath, stuck into his side. Yet he was also filled with a sense of glorious achievement — why, he wasn’t yet sure, but it was a grand feeling.
Without opening his eyes or moving any part of him the thickness of a Lankhmar penny a century old, he oriented himself. To his left, within easy arm-reach on a stout night table would be a large pewter flagon of light wine. Even now he could sense, he thought, its coolth. Good.
To his right, within even easier reach, Hrenlet. He could feel her radiant warmth and hear her snoring — very loudly, in fact.
Or was it Hrenlet for certain? — or at any rate _only_ Hrenlet? She had been very merry last night before he went to the gaming table, playfully threatening to introduce him intimately to a red-haired and hot-blooded female cousin of hers from Ool Hrusp, where they had great wealth in cattle. Could it be that…? At any rate, good too, or even better.
While under his downy thick pillows — Ah, there was the explanation for his ever-mounting sense of glory! Late last night he had cleaned them all out of every golden Lankhmarian rilk, every golden Kvarch Nar gront, every golden coin from the Eastern Lands, Quarmall, or elsewhere! Yes, he remembered it well now: he had taken them all — and at the simple game of sixes and sevens, where the banker wins if he matches the number of coins the player holds in his fist; those Eight-City fools didn’t realize they tried to make their fists big when they held six golden coins and tightened them when they held seven. Yes, he had turned all their pockets and pouches inside out — and at the end he had crazily matched a quarter of his winnings against an oddly engraved slim tin whistle supposed to have magical properties … and won that too! And then saluted them all and reeled off happily, well-ballasted by gold like a treasure galleon, to bed and Hrenlet. Had he had Hrenlet? He wasn’t sure.
Fafhrd permitted himself a dry-throated, raspy yawn. Was ever man so fortunate? At his left hand, wine. At his right a beauteous girl, or more likely two, since there was a sweet strong farm-smell coming to him under the sheets; and what is juicier than a farmer’s (or cattleman’s) redhead daughter? While under his pillows — he twisted his head and neck luxuriously; he couldn’t quite feel the tight-bulging bag of golden coins — the pillows were many and thick — but he could imagine it.
He tried to recall why he had made that last hare-brained successful wager. The curly-bearded braggart had claimed he had the slim tin whistle of a wise woman and that it summoned thirteen helpful beasts of some sort — and this had recalled to Fafhrd the wise woman who had told him in his youth that each sort of animal has its governing thirteen — and so his sentimentality had been awakened — and he had wanted to get the whistle as a present for the Gray Mouser, who doted on the little props of magic — yes, that was it!
Eyes still shut, Fafhrd plotted his course of action. He suddenly stretched out his left arm blind and without any groping fastened it on the pewter flagon — it was even be-dewed! — and drained half of it — nectar! — and set it back.
Then with his right hand he stroked the girl — Hrenlet, or her cousin? — from shoulder to haunch.
She was covered with short bristly fur and, at his amorous touch, she mooed!
Fafhrd wide-popped his eyes and jackknifed up in the bed, so that sunlight, striking low through the small unglazed window, drenched him yellowly and made a myriad wonder of the hand-polished woods paneling the room, their grains an infinitely varied arabesque. Beside him, pillowed as thickly as he was — and possibly drugged — was a large, long-eared, pink-nostriled auburn calf. Suddenly he could feel her hooves through his boots, and drew the latter abruptly back. Beyond her was no girl — or even other calf — at all.
He dove his right hand under his pillows. His fingers touched the familiar double-stitched leather of his pouch, but instead of being ridgy and taut with gold pieces, it was, except for one thin cylinder — that tin-whistle — flat as an unleavened Sarheenmar pancake.
He flung back the bedclothes so that they bellied high and wild in the air, like a sail torn loose in a squall. Thrusting the burgled purse under his belt, he vaulted out of bed, snatched up his long-sword by its furry scabbard — he intended it for spanking purposes — and dashed through the heavy double drapes out the door, pausing only to dump down his throat the last of the wine.
Despite his fury at Hrenlet, he had to admit, as he hurriedly quaffed, that she had dealt honestly with him up to a point: his bed-comrade was female, red-haired, indubitably from the farm and — for a calf — beauteous, while her now-alarmed mooing had nevertheless a throaty amorous quality.
The common-room was another wonder of polished wood — Movarl’s kingdom was so young that its forests were still its chief wealth. Most of the windows showed green leaves close beyond. From walls and ceiling jutted fantastic demons and winged warrior-maidens all wood-carved. Here and there against the wall leaned beautifully polished bows and spears. A wide doorway led out to a narrow courtyard where a bay stallion moved restlessly under an irregular green roof. The city of Kvarch Nar had twenty times as many mighty trees as homes.
About the common-room lounged a dozen men clad in green and brown, drinking wine, playing at board-games, and conversing. They were dark-bearded brawny fellows, a little shorter — though not much — than Fafhrd.
Fafhrd instantly noted that they were the identical fellows whom he had stripped of their gold-pieces at last night’s play. And this tempted him — hot with rage and fired by gulped wine — into a near-fatal indiscretion.
“Where is that thieving, misbegotten Hrenlet?” he roared, shaking his scabbarded sword above his head. “She’s stolen from under my pillows all my winnings!”
Instantly the twelve sprang to their feet, hands gripping sword hilts. The burliest took a step toward Fafhrd, saying icily, “You dare suggest that a noble maiden of Kvarch Nar shared your bed, barbarian?”
Fafhrd realized his mistake. His liaison with Hrenlet, though obvious to all, had never before been remarked on, because the women of the Eight Cities are revered by their men and may do what they wish, no matter how licentious. But woe betide the outlander who puts this into words.
Yet Fafhrd’s rage still drove him beyond reason. “Noble?” he cried. “She’s a liar and a whore! Her arms are two white snakes, a-crawl ‘neath the blankets — for gold, not man-flesh! Despite which, she’s also a shepherd of lusts and pastures her flock between my sheets!”
A dozen swords came screeching out of their scabbards at that and there was a rush. Fafhrd grew logical, almost too late. There seemed only one chance of survival left. He sprinted straight for the big door, parrying with his still-scabbarded sword the hasty blows of Movarl’s henchmen, raced across the courtyard, vaulted into the saddle of the bay, and kicked him into a gallop.
He risked one backward look as the bay’s iron-shod hooves began to strike sparks from the flinty narrow forest road. He was rewarded by a vivid glimpse of his yellow-haired Hrenlet leaning bare-armed in her shift from an upper window and laughing heartily.
A half-dozen arrows whirred viciously around him and he devoted himself to getting more speed from the bay. He was three leagues along the winding road to Klelg Nar, which runs east through the thick forest close to the coast of the Inner Sea, when he decided that the whole business had been a trick, worked by last night’s losers in league with Hrenlet, to regain their gold — and perhaps one of them his girl — and that the arrows had been deliberately winged to miss.
He drew up the bay and listened. He could hear no pursuit. That pretty well confirmed it.
Yet there was no turning back now. Even Movarl could hardly protect him after he had spoken the words he had of an Eight-Cities lady.
There were no ports between Kvarch Nar and Klelg Nar. He would have to ride at least that far around the Inner Sea, somehow evading the Mingols besieging Klelg Nar, if he were to get back to Lankhmar and his share of Glipkerio’s reward for bringing all the grain ships save _Clam_ safe to port. It was most irksome.
Yet he still could not really hate Hrenlet. This horse was a stout one and there was a big saddlebag of food balancing a large canteen of wine. Besides, its reddish hue delightfully echoed that of the calf, a rough joke, but a good one.
Also, he couldn’t deny that Hrenlet had been magnificent between the sheets — a superior sort of slim unfurred cow, and witty too.
He dipped in his pancake-flat pouch and examined the tin whistle, which aside from memories was now his sole spoil from Kvarch Nar. It had down one side of it a string of undecipherable characters and down the other the figure of a slim feline beast couchant. He grinned widely, shaking his head. What a fool was a drunken gambler! He made to toss it away, then remembered the Mouser and returned it to his pouch.
He touched the bay with his heels and cantered on toward Klelg Nar, whistling an eerie but quickening Mingol march.
Nehwon — a vast bubble leaping up forever through the waters of eternity. Like airy champagne … or, to certain moralists, like a globe of stinking gas from the slimiest, most worm-infested marsh.
Lankhmar — a continent firm-seated on the solid watery inside of the bubble called Nehwon. With mountains, hills, towns, plains, a crooked coastline, deserts, lakes, marshes too, and grainfields — especially grainfields, source of the continent’s wealth, to either side of the Hlal, greatest of rivers.
And on the continent’s northern tip, on the east bank of the Hlal, mistress of the grainfields and their wealth, the City of Lankhmar, oldest in the world. Lankhmar, thick-walled against barbarians and beasts, thick-floored against creepers and crawlers and gnawers.
At the south of the City of Lankhmar, the Grain Gate, its twenty-foot thickness and thirty-foot width often echoing with the creak of ox-drawn wagons bringing in Lankhmar’s tawny, dry, edible treasure. Also the Grand Gate, larger still and more glorious, and the smaller End Gate. Then the South Barracks with its black-clad soldiery, the Rich Men’s Quarter, the Park of Pleasure and the Plaza of Dark Delights. Next Whore Street and the streets of other crafts. Beyond those, crossing the city from the Marsh Gate to the docks, the Street of the Gods, with its many flamboyantly soaring fanes of the Gods _in_ Lankhmar and its single squat black temple of the Gods _of_ Lankhmar — more like an ancient tomb except for its tall, square, eternally silent bell-tower. Then the slums and the windowless homes of the nobles; the great grain-towers, like a giant’s forest of house-thick tree-trunks chopped off evenly. Finally, facing the Inner Sea to the north and the Hlal to the west, the North Barracks, and on a hill of solid, sea-sculptured rock, the Citadel and the Rainbow Palace of Glipkerio Kistomerces.
An adolescent serving maid balancing on her close-shaven head with aid of a silver coronet-ring a large tray of sweet-meats and brimming silver goblets, strode like a tightrope walker into a green-tiled antechamber of the Blue Audience Chamber of that palace. She wore black leather collars around her neck, wrists, and slender waist. Light silver chains a little shorter than her forearms tied her wrist-collars to her waist-collar — it was Glipkerio’s whim that no maid’s finger should touch his food or even its tray and that every maid’s balance be perfect. Aside from her collars she was unclothed, while aside from her short-clipped eyelashes, she was entirely shaven — another of the fantastic monarch’s dainty whims, that no hair should drop in his soup. She looked like a doll before it is dressed, its wig affixed, and its eyebrows painted on.
The sea-hued tiles lining the chamber were hexagonal and big as the palm of a large hand. Most were plain, but here and there were ones figured with sea creatures: a mollusk, a cod, an octopus, a sea horse.
The maid was almost halfway to the narrow, curtained archway leading to the Blue Audience Chamber when her gaze became fixed on a tile in the floor a long stride from the archway ahead but somewhat to the left. It was figured with a sea lion. It lifted the breadth of a thumb, like a little trapdoor, and eyes with a jetty gleam a finger-joint apart peered out at her.
She shook from toes to head, but her tight-bitten lips uttered no sound. The goblets chinked faintly, the tray began to slide, but she got her head under its center again with a swift sidewise ducking movement, and then began to go with long fearful steps around the horrid tile as far as she could to the right, so that the edge of the tray was hardly a finger’s-breadth from the wall.
Just under the edge of the tray, as if that were a porch-roof, a plain green tile in the wall opened like a door and a rat’s black face thrust out with spade-teeth bared.
The maid leaped convulsively away, still in utter silence. The tray left her head. She tried to get under it. The floor-tile clattered open wide and a long-bodied black rat came undulating out. The tray struck the dodging maid’s shoulder, she strained toward it futilely with her short-chained hands, then it struck the floor with a nerve-shattering clangor and all the spilled goblets rang.
As the silver reverberations died, there was else only the rapid soft _thump_ of her bare feet running back the way she had come. One goblet rolled a last turn. Then there was desert stillness in the green antechamber.
Two hundred heartbeats later, it was broken by another muted thudding of bare feet, this time those of a party returning the way the maid had run. There entered first, watchful-eyed, two shaven-headed, white-smocked, browny cooks, each armed with a cleaver in one hand and a long toasting-fork in the other. Second, two naked and shaven kitchen boys, bearing many wet and dry rags and a broom of black feathers. After them, the maid, her silver chains gathered in her hands, so that they would not chink from her trembling. Behind her, a monstrously fat woman in a dress of thick black wool that went to her redoubled chins and plump knuckles and hid her surely monstrous feet and ankles. Her black hair was dressed in a great round beehive stuck through and through with long black-headed pins, so that it was as if she bore a prickly planet on her head. This appeared to be the case, for her puffed face was weighted with a world of sullenness and hate. Her black eyes peered stern and all-distrustful from between folds of fat, while a sparse black mustache, like the ghost of a black centipede, crossed her upper lip. Around her vast belly she wore a broad leather belt from which hung at intervals keys, thongs, chains, and whips. The kitchen boys believed she had deliberately grown mountain-fat to keep them from clinking together and so warn them when she came a-spying.
Now the fat kitchen-queen and palace mistress stared shrewdly around the antechamber, then spread her humpy palms, glaring at the maid. Not one green tile was displaced.
In like dumb-show, the maid nodded vehemently, pointing from her waist at the tile figured with a sea lion, then threaded tremblingly forward between the spilled stuff and touched it with her toe.
One of the cooks quickly knelt and gently thumped it and the surrounding tiles with a knuckle. Each time the faint sound was equally solid. He tried to get the tines of his fork under the sea lion tile from every side and failed.
The maid ran to the wall where the other glazed door had opened and searched the bare tiles frantically, her slim hands tugging uselessly. The other cook thumped the tiles she indicated without getting a hollow sound.
The glare of the palace mistress changed from suspicion to certainty. She advanced on the maid like a storm cloud, her eyes its lightning, and suddenly thrusting out her two ham-like arms, snapped a thong to a silver ring in the maid’s collar. That snap was the loudest sound yet.
The maid shook her head wildly three times. Her trembling increased, then suddenly stopped altogether. As the palace mistress led her back the way they had come, she drooped her head and shoulders, and at the first vindictive downward jerk dropped to her hands and knees and padded rapidly, dog-fashion.
Under the watchful eyes of one of the cooks, the kitchen boys began swiftly to clean up the mess, wrapping each goblet in a rag ere they laid it on the platter, lest it chink. Their gazes kept darting fearfully about at the myriad tiles.
The Gray Mouser, standing on _Squid_’s gently-dipping prow, sighted the soaring Citadel of Lankhmar through the dispersing fog. Beyond it to the east there soon came into view the square-topped minarets of the Overlord’s palace, each finished in stone of different hue, and to the south the dun granaries like vast smokestacks. He hailed the first sea-wherry he saw to _Squid_’s side. With the black kitten spitting at him reproachfully, and against Slinoor’s command but before Slinoor could decide to have him forcibly restrained — he slid down the long boathook with which the prow wherryman had caught hold of _Squid_’s rail. Landing lightly in the wherry, he gave an approving shoulder-pat to the astonished hook-holder, then commanded, promising a fat fee, that he be rowed with all speed to the palace dock. The hook was shipped, the Mouser wove his way to the slender craft’s stern, the three wherrymen out-oared and the craft raced east over the silty water, brown with mud from the Hlal.
The Mouser called consolingly back to Slinoor, “Never fear, I will make a marvelous report to Glipkerio, praising you to the skies — and even Lukeen to the height of a low raincloud!”
Then he faced forward, faintly smiling and frowning at once in thought. He was somewhat sorry he had had to desert Fafhrd, who had been immersed in an apparently endless drinking and dicing bout with Movarl’s toughest henchmen when _Squid_ had sailed from Kvarch Nar — the great oafs died of wine and their losses each dawn, but were reborn in the late afternoon with thirst restored and money-pouches miraculously refilled.
But he was even more pleased that now he alone would bear Glipkerio Movarl’s thanks for the four shiploads of grain and be able all by himself to tell the wondrous tale of the dragon, the rats, and their human masters — or colleagues. By the time Fafhrd got back from Kvarch Nar, broken-pursed and likely broken-pated too, the Mouser would be occupying a fine apartment in Glipkerio’s palace and be able subtly to irk his large comrade by offering him hospitalities and favors.
He wondered idly where Hisvin and Hisvet and their small entourage were now. Perhaps in Sarheenmar, or more likely Ilthmar, or already lurching by camel-train from that city to some retreat in the Eastern Lands, to be well away from Glipkerio’s and Movarl’s vengeance. Unwilled, his left hand rose to his temple, gently fingering the tiny straight ridge there. Truly, at this already dreamy distance, he could not hate Hisvet or the brave proxy-creature Frix. Surely Hisvet’s vicious threats had been in part a kind of love-play. He did not doubt that some part of her yearned for him. Besides, he had marked her far worse than she had marked him. Well, perhaps he would meet her again some year in some far corner of the world.
These foolishly forgiving and forgetting thoughts of the Mouser were in part due, he knew himself, to his present taut yearning for any acceptable girl. Kvarch Nar under Movarl had proved a strait-laced city, by the Mouser’s standards, and during his brief stay the one erring girl encountered — one Hrenlet — had chosen to err with Fafhrd. Well, Hrenlet had been something of a giantess, albeit slender, and now he was in Lankhmar, where he knew a dozen-score spots to ease his tautness.
The silty-brown water gave way abruptly to deep green. The sea-wherry passed beyond the outflow of the Hlal and was darting along atop the Lankhmar Deep, which dove down sheer-walled and bottomless at the very foot of the wave-pitted great rock on which stood the citadel and the palace. And now the wherrymen had to row out around a strange obstruction: a copper chute wide as a man is tall that, braced by great brazen beams, angled down from a porch of the palace almost to the surface of the sea. The Mouser wondered if the whimmy Glipkerio had taken up aquatic sports during his absence. Or perhaps this was a new way of disposing of unsatisfactory servants and slaves — sliding them suitably weighted into the sea. Then he noted a spindle-shaped vehicle (if it was that) thrice as long as a man and made of some dull gray metal poised at the top of the chute. A puzzle.
The Mouser dearly loved puzzles, if only to elaborate on them rather than solve them, but he had no time for this one. The wherry had drawn up at the royal wharf, and he was haughtily exhibiting to the clamoring eunuchs and guards his starfish-emblemed courier’s ring from Glipkerio and his parchment sealed with the cross-sworded seal of Movarl.
The latter seemed to impress the palace-fry most. He was swiftly bowed across the dock, mounted a dizzily tall, gaily-painted wooden stair, and found himself in Glipkerio’s audience chamber — a glorious sea-fronting blue-tiled room, each large triangular tile bearing a fishy emblem in bas-relief.
The room was huge despite the blue curtains dividing it now into two halves. A pair of naked and shaven pages bowed to the Mouser and parted the curtains for him. Their sinuous silent movements against that blue background made him think of mermen. He stepped through the narrow triangular opening — to be greeted by a rather distant but imperious “Hush!”
Since the hissing command came from the puckered lips of Glipkerio himself and since one of the beanpole monarch’s hand-long skinny fingers now rose and crossed those lips, the Mouser stopped dead. With a fainter hiss the blue curtains fell together behind him.
It was a strange and most startling scene that presented itself. The Mouser’s heart missed a beat — mostly in self-outrage that his imagination had completely missed the weird possibility that was now staged before him.
Three broad archways led out onto a porch on which rested the pointy-ended gray vehicle he had noted balanced at the top of the chute. Now he could see a hinged manhole toward its out-jutting bow.
At the near end of the room was a large, thick-bottomed, close-barred cage containing at least a score of black rats, which chittered and wove around each other ceaselessly and sometimes clattered the bars menacingly.
At the far end of the sea-blue room, near the circular stair leading up into the palace’s tallest minaret, Glipkerio had risen in excitement from his golden audience couch shaped like a seashell. The fantastic overlord stood a head higher than Fafhrd, but was thin as a starved Mingol. His black toga made him look like a funeral cypress. Perhaps to offset this dismal effect, he wore a wreath of small violet flowers around his blond head, the hair of which clustered in golden ringlets.
Close beside him, scarce half his height, hanging weightlessly on his arm like an elf and dressed in a loose robe of pale blonde silk, was Hisvet. The Mouser’s dagger-cut, stretching from her left nostril to her jaw, was still a pink line and would have given her a sardonic expression, except that now as her gaze swung to the Mouser she smiled most prettily.
Standing almost midway between the audience couch and the caged rats was Hisvet’s father Hisvin. His skinny frame was wrapped in a black toga, but he still wore his tight black leather cap with its long cheek-flaps. His gaze was fixed fiercely on the caged rats and he was weaving his bony fingers at them hypnotically.
“Gnawers dark from deep below…” he began to incant in a voice that whistled with age yet was authoritatively strident.
At that instant a naked young serving maid appeared through a narrow archway near the audience couch, bearing on her shaven head a great silver tray laden with goblets and temptingly mounded silver plates. Her wrists were chained to her waist, while a fine silver chain between her narrow black anklets prevented her from taking steps more than twice as long as her narrow pink-toed feet.
Without a “Hush!” this time, Glipkerio raised a narrow long palm to her and once again put a long, skinny finger to his lips. The slim maid’s movements ceased imperceptibly and she stood silent as a birch tree on a windless day.
The Mouser was about to say, “Puissant Overlord, this is evilest enchantment. You are consorting with your dearest enemies!” — but at that instant Hisvet smiled at him again and he felt a frighteningly delicious tingling run down his cheek and gums from the silver dart in his left temple to his tongue, inhibiting speech.
Hisvin recommenced in his commanding Lankhmarese that bore the faintest trace of an Ilthmar lisp and reminded the Mouser of the lisping rat Grig:
“Gnawers dark from deep below,
To ratty grave you now must go!
Blear each eye and drag each tail!
Fur fall off and heartbeat fail!”
All the black rats crowded to the farthest side of their cage from Hisvin, chittering and squeaking as if in maddest terror. Most of them were on their hind feet, clawing toward the bars like a panicky human crowd.
The old man, now swiftly weaving his fingers in a most complex, mysterious pattern, continued relentlessly:
“Blur your eyesight, stop your breath! —
By corrupting spell of Death!
Your brains are cheese, your life is fled!
Spin once around and drop down dead!”
_And the black rats did just that_ — spinning like amateur actors both to ease and dramatize their falls, yet falling most convincingly all the same with varying _plops_ onto the cage floor or each other and lying stiff and still with furry eyelids a-droop and hairless tails slack and sharp-nailed feet thrust stiffly up.
There was a curious slow-paced slappy clapping as Glipkerio applauded with his narrow hands which were long as human feet. Then the beanpole monarch hurried to the cage with strides so lengthy that the lower two-thirds of his toga looked like the silhouette of a tent. Hisvet skipped merrily at his side, while Hisvin came circling swiftly.
“Didst see that wonder, Gray Mouser?” Glipkerio demanded in piping voice, waving his courier closer. “There is a plague of rats in Lankhmar. You, who might from your name be expected to protect us, have returned somewhat tardily. But — bless the Black-Boned Gods! — my redoubtable servant Hisvin and his incomparable sorcerer-apprentice daughter Hisvet, having conquered the rats which menaced the grain fleet, hastened back in good time to take measures against our local rat-plague — magical measures which will surely be successful, as has now been fully demonstrated.”
At this point the fantastical overlord reached a long thin naked arm from under his toga and chucked the Mouser under the chin, much to the latter’s distaste, though he concealed it. “Hisvin and Hisvet even tell me,” Glipkerio remarked with a fluty chuckle, “that they suspected _you_ for a while of being in league with the rats — as who would not from your gray garb and small crouchy figure? — and kept you tied. But all’s well that ends well and I forgive you.”
The Mouser began a most polemical refutation and accusation — but only in his mind, for he heard himself saying, “Here, Milord, is an urgent missive from the King of the Eight Cities. By the by, there was a dragon — ”
“Oh, that two-headed dragon!” Glipkerio interrupted with another piping chuckle and a roguish finger-wave. He thrust the parchment into the breast of his toga without even glancing at the seal. “Movarl has informed me by albatross post of the strange mass delusion in my fleet. Hisvin and Hisvet, master psychologists both, confirm this. Sailors are a woefully superstitious lot, Gray Mouser, and ’tis evident their fancies are more furiously contagious than I suspected — for even you were infected! I would have expected it of your barbarian mate — Favner? Fafrah? — or even of Slinoor and Lukeen — for what are captains but jumped-up sailors? — but you, who are at least sleazily civilized … However, I forgive you that too! Oh, what a mercy that wise Hisvin here thought to keep watch on the fleet in his cutter!”
The Mouser realized he was nodding — and that Hisvet and, in his wrinkle-lipped fashion, Hisvin were smiling archly. He looked down at the piled stiff rats in their theatrical death-throes. Issek take ’em, but their droopy-lidded eyes even looked whitely glazed!
“Their fur hasn’t fallen off,” he criticized mildly.
“You are too literal,” Glipkerio told him with a laugh. “You don’t comprehend poetic license.”
“Or the devices of humano-animal suggestion,” Hisvin added solemnly.
The Mouser trod hard — and, he thought, surreptitiously — on a long tail that drooped from the cage bottom to the tiled floor. There was no atom of response.
But Hisvin noted and lightly clicked a fingernail. The Mouser fancied there was a slight stirring deep in the rat-pile. Suddenly a nauseous stink sprang from the cage. Glipkerio gulped. Hisvet delicately pinched her pale nostrils between thumb and ring-finger.
“You had some question about the efficacy of my spell?” Hisvin asked the Mouser most civilly.
“Aren’t the rats corrupting rather fast?” the Mouser asked. It occurred to him that there might have been a tight-sealed sliding door in the floor of the cage and a dozen long-dead rats or merely a well-rotted steak in the thick bottom beneath.
“Hisvin kills ’em doubly dead,” Glipkerio asserted somewhat feebly, pressing his long hand to his narrow stomach. “All processes of decay are accelerated!”
Hisvin waved hurriedly and pointed toward an open window beyond the archways to the porch. A brawny yellow Mingol in black loincloth sprang from where he squatted in a corner, heaved up the cage, and ran with it to dump it in the sea. The Mouser followed him. Elbowing the Mingol aside with a shrewd dig at the short ribs and leaning far out, supporting himself with his other hand reaching up and gripping the tiled window-side, the Mouser saw the cage tumbling down the sheer wall and sea-eaten rock, the stiff rats tumbling about in it, and fall with a white splash into the blue waters.
At the same instant he felt Hisvet, who had rapidly followed him, press closely with her silken side against his from armpit to ankle bone.
The Mouser thought he made out small dark shapes leaving the cage and swimming strongly underwater toward the rock as the iron rat-prison sank down and down.
Hisvet breathed in his ear, “Tonight when the evening star goes to bed. The Plaza of Dark Delight. The grove of closet trees.”
Turning swiftly back, Hisvin’s delicate daughter commanded the black-collared, silver-chained maid, “Light wine of Ilthmar for his Majesty! Then serve us others.”
Glipkerio gulped down a goblet of sparkling colorless ferment and turned a shade less green. The Mouser selected a goblet of darker, more potent stuff and also a black-edged tender beef cutlet from the great silver tray as the maid dropped gracefully to both knees while keeping her slender upper body perfectly erect.
As she rose with an effortless-seeming undulation and moved mincingly toward Hisvin, the short steps enforced by her silver ankles-chain, the Mouser noted that although her front had been innocent of both raiment and ornamentation, her naked back was crisscrossed diamond-wise by a design of evenly-spaced pink lines from nape to heels.
Then he realized that these were not narrow strokes painted on, but the weals of a whiplashing. So stout Samanda was maintaining her artistic disciplines! The unspoken torment-conspiracy between the lath-thin effeminate Glipkerio and the bladder-fat palace mistress was both psychologically instructive and disgusting. The Mouser wondered what the maid’s offense had been. He also pictured Samanda sputtering through her singing black woolen garb in a huge white-hot oven — or sliding with a leaden weight on her knee-thick ankles down the copper chute outside the porch.
Glipkerio was saying to Hisvin, “So it is only needful to lure out all the rats into the streets and speak your spell at them?”
“Most true, O sapient Majesty,” Hisvin assured him, “though we must delay a little, until the stars have sailed to their most potent stations in the ocean of the sky. Only then will my magic slay rats at a distance. I’ll speak my spell from the blue minaret and slay them all.”
“I hope those stars will set all canvas and make best speed,” Glipkerio said, worry momentarily clouding the childish delight in his long, low-browed face. “My people have begun to fret at me to do something to disperse the rats or fight ’em back into their holes. Which will interfere with luring them forth, don’t you think?”
“Don’t trouble your mighty brain with that worry,” Hisvin reassured him. “The rats are not easily scared. Take measures against them insofar as you’re urged to. Meanwhile, tell your council you have an all-powerful weapon in reserve.”
The Mouser suggested, “Why not have a thousand pages memorize Hisvin’s deadly incantation and shout it down the rat-holes? The rats, being underground, won’t be able to tell that the stars are in the wrong place.”
Glipkerio objected, “Ah, but it is necessary that the tiny beasts also see Hisvin’s finger-weaving. You do not understand these refinements, Mouser. You have delivered Movarl’s missive. Leave us.
“But mark this,” he added, fluttering his black toga, his yellow-irised eyes like angry gold coins in his narrow head. “I have forgiven you once your delays, Small Gray Man, and your dragon-delusions and your doubts of Hisvin’s magical might. But I shall not forgive a second time. Never mention such matters again.”
The Mouser bowed and made his way out. As he passed the statuesque maid with crisscrossed back, he whispered, “Your name?”
“Reetha,” she breathed.
Hisvet came rustling past to dip up a silver forkful of caviar, Reetha automatically dropping to her knees.
“Dark delights,” Hisvin’s daughter murmured and rolled the tiny black fish eggs between her bee-stung upper lip and pink and blue tongue.
When the Mouser was gone, Glipkerio bent down to Hisvin, until his figure somewhat resembled a black gibbet. “A word in your ear,” he whispered. “The rats sometimes make even me … well, nervous.”
“They are most fearsome beasties,” Hisvin agreed somberly, “who might daunt even the gods.”
Fafhrd spurred south along the stony sea-road that led from Klelg Nar to Sarheenmar and which was squeezed between steep, rocky mountains and the Inner Sea. The sea’s dark swells peaked up blackly as they neared shore and burst with unending crashes a few yards below the road, which was dank and slippery with their spray. Overhead pressed low dark clouds which seemed less water vapor than the smoke of volcanoes or burning cities.
The Northerner was leaner — he had sweated and burned away weight — and his face was grim, his eyes red-shot and red-rimmed from dust, his hair dulled with it. He rode a tall, powerful, gaunt-ribbed gray mare with dangerous eyes, also red-shot — a beast looking as cursed as the landscape they traversed.
He had traded the bay with the Mingols for this mount, and despite its ill temper got the best of the bargain, for the bay had been redly gasping out its life from a lance thrust at the time of the trade. Approaching Klelg Nar along the forest road, he had spied three spider-thin Mingols preparing to rape slender twin sisters. He had managed to thwart this cruel and unaesthetic enterprise because he had given the Mingols no time to use their bows, only the lance, while their short narrow scimitars had been no match for Graywand. When the last of the three had gone down, sputtering curses and blood, Fafhrd had turned to the identically-clad girls, only to discover that he had rescued but one — a Mingol had mean-heartedly cut the other’s throat before turning his scimitar on Fafhrd. Thereafter Fafhrd had mastered one of the tethered Mingol horses despite its fiendish biting and kicking. The surviving girl had revealed among her other shriekings that her family might still be alive among the defenders of Klelg Nar, so Fafhrd had swung her up on his saddlebow despite her frantic struggles and efforts to bite. When she quieted somewhat, he had been stirred by her slim sprawly limbs so close and her lemur-large eyes and her repeated assertion, reinforced by horrendous maidenly curses and quaint childhood slang, that all men without exception were hairy beasts, this with a sneer at Fafhrd’s luxuriously furred chest. But although tempted to amorousness he had restrained himself out of consideration for her coltish youth — she seemed scarce twelve, though tall for her age — and recent bereavement. Yet when he had returned her to her not very grateful and strangely suspicious family, she had replied to his courteous promise to return in a year or two with a wrinkling of her snub nose and a sardonic flirt of her blue eyes and slim shoulders, leaving Fafhrd somewhat doubtful of his wisdom in sparing her his wooing and also saving her in the first place. Yet he had gained a fresh mount and a tough Mingol bow with its quiver of darts.
Klelg Nar was the scene of bitter house-to-house and tree-to-tree street fighting, while Mingol campfires glowed in a semicircle to the east every night. To his dismay Fafhrd had learned that for weeks there had not been a ship in Klelg Nar’s harbor, of which the Mingols held half the perimeter. They had not fired the city because wood was wealth to the lean dwellers of the treeless steppes — in fact, their slaves dismantled and plucked apart houses as soon as won and the precious planks and lovely carvings were instantly carted off east, or more often dragged on travoises.
So despite the rumor that a branch of the Mingol horde had bent south, Fafhrd had set off in that direction on his vicious-tempered mount, somewhat tamed by the whip and morsels of honeycomb. And now it seemed from the smoke adrift above the sea-road that the Mingols might not have spared Sarheenmar from the torch as they had Klelg Nar. It also began to seem certain that the Mingols had taken Sarheenmar, from the evidence of the wild-eyed, desperate, ragged, dust-caked refugees who began to crowd the road in their flight north, forcing Fafhrd to toil now and again up the hillside, to save them from his new mount’s savage hooves. He questioned a few of the refugees, but they were incoherent with terror, babbling as wildly as if he sought to waken them from nightmare. Fafhrd nodded to himself — he knew the Mingol penchant for torture.
But then a disordered troop of Mingol cavalry had come galloping along in the same direction as the escaping Sarheenmarts. Their horses were lathered with sweat and their shiny faces contorted by terror. They appeared not to see Fafhrd, let alone consider attacking him, while it seemed not from malice but panic that they rode down such refugees as got in their way.
Fafhrd’s face grew grim and frowning as he cantered on, still against the gibbering stream, wondering what horror would daunt Mingol and Sarheenmart alike.
* * * *
Black rats kept showing themselves in Lankhmar by day — not stealing or biting, squealing or scurrying, but only showing themselves. They peered from drains and new-gnawed holes, they sat in window slits, they crouched indoors as calmly and confident-eyed as cats — and as often, proportionately, in milady’s boudoir as in the tenement-cells of the poor.
Whenever they were noted, there was a gasping and then shrieking, a rush of footsteps, and a hurling of black pots, begemmed bracelets, knives, rocks, chessmen, or whatever else might be handy. But often it was a time before the rats were noted, so serene and at home they seemed.
Some trotted sedately amidst the ankles and swaying black togas of the crowds on the tiled or cobbled streets, like pet dwarf dogs, causing sharp human eddies when they were recognized. Five sat like black, bright-eyed bottles on a top shelf in the store of the wealthiest grocer in Lankhmar, until they were spied for what they were and hysterically pelted with clumpy spice-roots, weighty Hrusp nuts, and even jars of caviar, whereupon they made their leisurely exit through a splinter-edged rat doorway which had not been in the back of the shelf the day before. Among the black marble sculptures lining the walls of the Temple of the Beasts, another dozen posed two-legged like carvings until the climax of the ritual, when they took up a fife-like squeaking and began a slow, sure-foot weaving through the niches. Beside the blind beggar Naph, three curled on the curb, mistaken for his soot-dirty rucksack, until a thief tried to steal it. Another reposed on the jeweled cushion of the pet black marmoset of Elakeria, niece of the overlord and a most lush devourer of lovers, until she absently reached out a plump hand to stroke the beastie and her nail-gilded fingers encountered not velvet fur, but short and bristly.
During floods and outbreaks of the dread Black Sickness, rats had in remembered times invaded the streets and dwellings of Lankhmar, but then they had raced and dodged or staggered in curves, never moved with their present impudent deliberation.
Their behavior made old folks and storytellers and thin-bearded squinting scholars fearfully recall the fables that there had once been a humped city of rats large as men where imperial Lankhmar had now stood for three-score centuries; that rats had once had a language and government of their own and a single empire stretching to the borders of the unknown world, coexistent with man’s cities but more unified; and that beneath the stoutly mortared stones of Lankhmar, far below their customary burrowings and any delvings of man, there was a low-ceilinged rodent metropolis with streets and homes and glow-lights all its own and granaries stuffed with stolen grain.
Now it seemed as if the rats owned not only that legendary sub-metropolitan rodent Lankhmar, but Lankhmar above ground as well, they stood and sat and moved so arrogantly.
The sailors from _Squid_, prepared to awe their sea-tavern cronies and get many free drinks with their tales of the horrid rat-attack on their ship, found Lankhmar interested only in its own rat plague. They were filled with chagrin and fear. Some of them returned for refuge to _Squid_, where the starsman’s light-defenses had been renewed and both Slinoor and the black kitten worriedly paced the poop.