Sheelba of the Eyeless Face reached into the hut without turning his hooded head and swiftly found a small object and held it forth.
“Here is your answer to Lankhmar’s Rat Plague,” he said in a voice deep, hollow, rapid and grating as round stones thudding together in a moderate surf. “Solve that problem, you solve all.”
Gazing from more than a yard below, the Gray Mouser saw silhouetted against the paling sky a small squat bottle pinched between the black fabric of the overlong sleeve of Sheelba, who chose never to show his fingers, if they were that. Silvery dawnlight shivered through the bottle’s crystal stopper.
The Mouser was not impressed. He was bone-weary and be-mired from armpit to boots, which were now sunk ankle-deep in sucking muck and sinking deeper all the time. His coarse gray silks were be-slimed and ripped, he feared, beyond the most cunning tailor’s repair. His scratched skin, where it was dry, was scaled with the Marsh’s itching muddy salt. The bandaged wound in his left arm ached and burned. And now his neck had begun to ache too, from having to peer craningly upward.
All around him stretched the dismal reaches of the Great Salt Marsh, acres of knife-edged sea grass hiding treacherous creeks and deadly sink-holes and pimpled with low hummocks crowded with twisted, dwarfed thorn trees and bloated prickly cactuses. While its animal population ran a noxious gamut from sea leeches, giant worms, poison eels and water cobras to saw-beaked, low-flapping cadaver birds and far-leaping, claw-footed salt-spiders.
Sheelba’s hut was a black dome about as big as the closet-tree bower in which the Mouser had last evening endured ecstasy and attempted assassination. It stood above the Marsh on five crooked poles or legs, four spaced evenly around its rim, the fifth central. Each leg was footed with a round plate big as a cutlassman’s shield, concave upward, and apparently envenomed, for ringing each was a small collection of corpses of the Marsh’s deadly fauna.
The hut had a single doorway, low and top-rounded as a burrow entrance. In it now Sheelba lay, chin on bent left elbow, if either of those were those, stretching out the squat bottle and seeming to peer down at the Mouser, unmindful of the illogicality of one called the Eyeless peering. Yet despite the sky-rim now pinkening to the east, the Mouser could see no hint of face of any sort in the deep hood, only midnight dark. Wearily and for perhaps the thousandth time, the Mouser wondered if Sheelba were called the Eyeless because he was blind in the ordinary way, or had only leathery skin between nostrils and pate, or was skull-headed, or perhaps had quivering antennae where eyes should be. The speculation gave him no shiver of fear, he was too angry and fatigued — and the squat bottle still didn’t impress him.
Batting aside a springing salt-spider with the back of his gauntleted hand, the Mouser called upward, “That’s a mighty small jug to hold poison for all the rats of Lankhmar. Hola, you in the black bag there, aren’t you going to invite me up for a drink, a bite, and a dry-out? I’ll curse you otherwise with spells I’ve unbeknownst stolen from you!”
“I’m not your mother, mistress, or nurse, but your wizard!” Sheelba retorted in his harsh hollow sea-voice. “Cease your childish threats and stiffen your back, small gray one!”
That last seemed the ultimate and crushing infidelity to the Mouser with his stiff neck and straining spine. He thought bitterly of the sinew-punishing, skin-smarting night he’d just spent. He’d left Lankhmar by the Marsh Gate, to the frightened amazement of the guards, who had strongly advised against solo marsh sorties even by day. Then he’d followed the twisty causeway by moonlight to the lightning-blasted but still towering gray Seahawk Tree. There after long peering he’d spotted Sheelba’s hut by a pulsing blue glow coming from its low doorway, and plunged boldly toward it through the swordish sea grass. Then had come nightmare. Deep creeks and thorny hummocks had appeared where he didn’t expect them and he had speedily lost his usually infallible sense of direction. The small blue glow had winked out and finally reappeared far to his right, then seemed to draw near and recede bafflingly time after time. He had realized he must be walking in circles around it and guessed that Sheelba had cast a dizzying enchantment on the area, perhaps to ensure against interruption while working some particularly toilsome and heinous magic. Only after twice almost perishing in quicksands and being stalked by a long-legged marsh leopard with blue-glinting eyes which the Mouser once mistook for the hut, because the beast seemed to have a habit of winking, had he at last reached his destination as the stars were dimming.
Thereafter he had poured out, or rather up, to Sheelba all his recent vexations, suggesting suitable solutions for each problem: a love potion for Hisvet, friendship potions for Frix and Hisvin, a patron potion for Glipkerio, a Mingol-repellent ointment, a black albatross to seek out Fafhrd and tell him to hurry home, and perhaps something to use against the rats, too. Now he was being offered only the last.
He rotated his head writhingly to unkink his neck, flicked a sea cobra away with Scalpel’s scabbard-tip, then gazed up sourly at the little bottle.
“How am I supposed to administer it?” he demanded. “A drop down each rat-hole? Or do I spoon it into selected rats and release them? I warn you that if it contains seeds of the Black Sickness, I will send all Lankhmar to extirpate you from the Marsh.”
“None of those,” Sheelba grated contemptuously. “You find a spot where rats are foregathered. Then you drink it yourself.”
The Mouser’s eyebrows lifted. After a bit he asked, “What will that do? Give me an evil eye for rats, so my glance strikes them dead? Make me clairvoyant, so I can spy out their chief nests through solid earth and rock? Or wondrously increase my cunning and mental powers?” he added, though truth to tell, he somewhat doubted if the last were possible to any great degree.
“Something like all those,” Sheelba retorted carelessly, nodding his hood. “It will put you on the right footing to cope with the situation. It will give you a power to deal with rats and deal death to them too, which no complete man has ever possessed on earth before. Here.” He let go the bottle. The Mouser caught it. Sheelba added instantly, “The effects of the potion last but nine hours, to the exact pulse-beat, which I reckon at a tenth of a million to the day, so see that all your work be finished in three-eighths that time. Do not fail to report to me at once thereafter all the circumstances of your adventure. And now farewell. Do not follow me.”
Sheelba withdrew inside his hut, which instantly bent its legs and by ones and twos lifted its shield-like feet with sucking _plops_ and walked away — somewhat ponderously at first, but then more swiftly, footing it like a great black beetle or water bug, its platters fairly skidding on the mashed-down sea grass.
The Mouser gazed after it with fury and amazement. Now he understood why the hut had been so elusive, and what had _not_ gone wrong with his sense of direction, and why the tall Seahawk Tree was no longer anywhere in sight. The wizard had led him a long chase last night, and doubtless a merry one from Sheelba’s viewpoint.
And when it occurred to the bone-tired, be-mired Mouser that Sheelba could readily now have transported him to the vicinity of the Marsh Gate in his traveling hut, he was minded to peg at the departing vehicular dwelling the lousy little bottle he’d got.
Instead he knotted a length of bandage tightly around the small black container, top to bottom, to make sure the stopper didn’t come out, put the bottle in the midst of his pouch, and carefully retightened and tied the pouch’s thong. He promised himself that if the potion did not solve his problems, he would make Sheelba feel that the whole city of Lankhmar had lifted up on myriad stout legs and come trampling across the Great Salt Marsh to pash the wizard in his hut. Then with a great effort he pulled his feet one after the other out of the muck into which he’d sunk almost knee-deep, pried a couple of pulsing sea slugs off his left boot with Cat’s Claw, used the same dagger to slay by slashing a giant worm tightening around his right ankle, drank the last stinging sup of wine in his wine-flask, tossed that away, and set out toward the tiny towers of Lankhmar, now dimly visible in the smoky west, directly under the sinking, fading gibbous moon.
* * * *
The rats were harming in Lankhmar, inflicting pain and wounds. Dogs came howling to their masters to have needle-like darts taken out of their faces. Cats crawled into hiding to wait it out while rat-bites festered and healed. Ferrets were found squealing in rat-traps that bruised flesh and broke bones. Elakeria’s black marmoset almost drowned in the oiled and perfumed water of his mistress’ deep, slippery-sided silver bathtub, into which the spidery-armed pet had somehow been driven, befouling the water in his fear.
Rat-nips on the face brought sleepers screamingly awake, sometimes to see a small black form scuttling across the blanket and leaping from the bed. Beautiful or merely terrified women took to wearing while they slept full masks of silver filigree or tough leather. Most households, highest to humblest, slept by candlelight and in shifts, so that there were always watchers. A shortage of candles developed, while lamps and lanterns were priced almost out of sight. Strollers had their ankles bitten; most streets showed only a few hurrying figures, while alleys were deserted. Only the Street of the Gods, which stretched from the Marsh Gate to the granaries on the Hlal, was free of rats, in consequence of which it and its temples were crammed with worshipers rich and poor, credulous and hitherto atheist, praying for relief from the Rat Plague to the ten hundred and one Gods _in_ Lankhmar and even to the dire and aloof Gods _of_ Lankhmar, whose bell-towered, ever-locked temple stood at the granaries-end of the street, opposite the narrow house of Hisvin the grain-merchant.
In frantic reprisal rat-holes were flooded, sometimes with poisoned water. Fumes of burning phosphorus and sulfur were pumped down them with bellows. By order of the Supreme Council and with the oddly ambivalent approval of Glipkerio, who kept chattering about his secret weapons, professional rat-catchers were summoned en masse from the grainfields to the south and from those to the west, across the river Hlal. By command of Olegnya Mingolsbane, acting without consultation with his overlord, regiments of black-clad soldiers were rushed at the double from Tovilyis, Kartishla, even Land’s End, and issued on the way weapons and items of uniform which puzzled them mightily and made them sneer more than ever at their quartermasters and at the effete and fantasy-minded Lankhmar military bureaucracy: long-handled three-tined forks, throwing balls pierced with many double-ended slim spikes, lead-weighted throwing nets, sickles, heavy leather gauntlets and bag-masks of the same material.
Where _Squid_ was docked at the towering granaries near the end of the Street of the Gods, waiting fresh cargo, Slinoor paced the deck nervously and ordered smooth copper disks more than a yard across set midway up each mooring cable, to baffle any rat creeping up them. The black kitten stayed mostly at the mast-top, worriedly a-peer at the city and descending only to scavenge meals. No wharf-cats came sniffing aboard _Squid_ or were to be seen prowling the docks.
In a green-tiled room in the Rainbow Palace of Glipkerio Kistomerces, and in the midst of a circle of fork-armed pages and guardsmen officers with bared dirks and small one-hand crossbows at the cock, Hisvin sought to cope with the hysteria of Lankhmar’s beanpole monarch, whom a half-dozen slim naked serving maids were simultaneously brow-stroking, finger-fondling, toe-kissing, plying with wine and black opium pills tiny as poppy seeds, and otherwise hopefully soothing.
Twisting away from his delightful ministrants, who moderated but did not cease their attentions, Glipkerio bleated petulantly, “Hisvin, Hisvin, you must hurry things. My people mutter at me. My Council and Captain General take measures over my head. There are even slavering mad-dog whispers of supplanting me on my seashell throne, as by my idiot cousin Radomix Kistomerces-Null. Hisvin, you’ve got your rats in the streets by day and night now, all set to be blasted by your incantations. When, oh when, is that planet of yours going to reach its proper spot on the starry stage so you can recite and finger-weave your rat-deadly magic? What’s delaying it, Hisvin? I command that planet to move faster! Else I will send a naval expedition across the unknown Outer Sea to sink it!”
The skinny, round-shouldered grain-merchant sorrowfully sucked in his cheeks beneath the flaps of his black leather cap, raised his beady eyes ceilingward, and in general made a most pious face.
“Alas, my brave overlord,” he said, “that star’s course may not yet be predicted with absolute certainty. It will soon arrive at its spot, never fear, but exactly how soon the most learned astrologer cannot foretell. Benign waves urge it forward, then a malign sky-swell drives it back. It is in the eye of a celestial storm. As an iceberg-huge jewel floating in the blue waters of the heavens, it is subject to their currents and ragings. Recall also what I’ve told you of your traitorous courier, the Gray Mouser, who it now appears is in league with powerful witch doctors and fetish-men working against us.”
Nervously plucking at his black toga and slapping away with his long, flappy fingers the pink hand of a maid who sought to rearrange the garment, Glipkerio spat out peevishly, “Now the Mouser. Now the stars. What sort of impotent sorcerer are you? Methinks the rats rule the stars as well as the streets and corridors of Lankhmar.”
Reetha, who was the rebuffed maid, uttered a soundless philosophic sigh and softly as a mouse inserted her slapped hand under her overlord’s toga and began most gently to scratch his stomach, meanwhile occupying her mind with a vision of herself girdled in three leather loops with Samanda’s keys, thongs, chains, and whips, while the blubbery palace mistress knelt naked and quaking before her.
Hisvin intoned, “Against that pernicious thought, I present you with a most powerful palindrome: Rats live on no evil star. Recite it with lips and mind when your warlike eagerness to come to final grips with your furry foes makes you melancholy, oh most courageous commander-in-chief.”
“You give me words; I ask for action,” Glipkerio complained.
“I will send my daughter Hisvet to attend you. She has now disciplined into instructive erotic capers a new dozen of silver-caged white rats.”
“Rats, rats, rats! Do you seek to drive me mad?” Glipkerio squeaked angrily.
“I will at once order her to destroy her harmless pets, good scholars though they be,” Hisvin answered smoothly, bowing very low so that he could make a nasty face unseen. “Then, your overlordship wishing, she shall come to soothe your battle-stung brazen nerves with mystic rhythms learned in the Eastern Lands. While her maid Frix is skilled in subtle massages known only to her and to certain practitioners in Quarmall, Kokgnab, and Klesh.”
Glipkerio lifted his shoulders, pouted his lips, and uttered a little grunt midway between indifference and unwilling satisfaction.
At that instant, a half-dozen of the officers and pages crouched together and directed their gazes and weapons at a doorway in which had appeared a little low shadow.
At the same moment, her mind overly absorbed and excited by the imagined squeals and groans of Samanda forced to crawl about the kitchen floor by jerks of her globe-dressed black hair and by jabs of the long pins taken from it, Reetha inadvertently tweaked a tuft of body hair which her gently scratching fingers had encountered.
Her monarch writhed as if stabbed and uttered a thin, piercing shriek.
A dwarf white cat had trotted nervously into the doorway, looking back over shoulder with nervous pink eyes, and now when Glipkerio screamed, disappeared as if batted by an unseen broom.
Glipkerio gasped, then shook a pointing finger under Reetha’s nose. It was all she could do not to snap with her teeth at the soft, perfumed object, which looked as long and loathsome to her as the white caterpillar of a giant moon moth.
“Report yourself to Samanda!” he commanded. “Describe to her in full detail your offense. Tell her to inform me beforehand of your hour of punishment.”
Against his own rule, Hisvin permitted himself a small, veiled expression of his contempt for his overlord’s wits. In his solemn professional voice he said, “For best effect, recite my palindrome backwards, letter by letter.”
* * * *
The Mouser snored peacefully on a thick mattress in a small bedroom above the shop of Nattick Nimblefingers the tailor, who was furiously at work below cleaning and mending the Mouser’s clothing and accouterments. One full and one half-empty wine-jug rested on the floor by the mattress, while under the Mouser’s pillow, clenched in his left fist for greater security, was the small black bottle he’d got from Sheelba.
It had been high noon when he had finally climbed out of the Great Salt Marsh and trudged through the Marsh Gate, utterly spent. Nattick had provided him with a bath, wine and a bed — and what sense of security the Mouser could get from harboring with an old slum friend.
Now he slept the sleep of exhaustion, his mind just beginning to be tickled by dreams of the glory that would be his when, under the eyes of Glipkerio, he would prove himself Hisvin’s superior at blasting rats. His dreams did not take account of the fact that Hisvin could hardly be counted a blaster of rats, but rather their ally — unless the wily grain-merchant had decided it was time to change sides.
* * * *
Fafhrd, stretched out in a grassy hilltop hollow lit by moonlight and campfire, was conversing with a long-limbed recumbent skeleton named Kreeshkra, but whom he now mostly addressed by the pet name Bonny Bones. It was a moderately strange sight, yet one to touch the hearts of imaginative lovers and enemies of racial discrimination in all the many universes.
The somewhat oddly matched pair regarded each other tenderly. Fafhrd’s curly, rather abundant body hair against his pale skin, where his loosened jerkin revealed it, was charmingly counterpointed by the curving glints of camp-fire reflected here and there from Kreeshkra’s skin against the background of her ivory bones. Like two scarlet minnows joined head and tail, her mobile lips played or lay quivering side by side, alternately revealing and hiding her pearly front teeth. Her breasts mounted on her rib cage were like the stem halves of pears, shading from palest pink to scarlet.
Fafhrd thoughtfully gazed back and forth between these colorful adornments.
“Why?” he asked finally.
Her laughter rippled like glass chimes. “Dear stupid Mud Man!” she said in her outlandishly accented Lankhmarese. “Girls who are not Ghouls — all your previous women, I suppose, may they be chopped to still-sentient raw bits in Hell! — draw attention to their points of attraction by concealing them with rich fabric or precious metals. We, who are transparent-fleshed and scorn all raiment, must go about it another way, employing cosmetics.”
Fafhrd chuckled lazily in answer. He was now looking back and forth between his dear white-ribbed companion and the moon seen through the smooth, pale gray branches of the dead thorn tree on the rim of the hollow, and finding a wondrous content in _that_ counterpoint. He thought how strange it was, though really not so much, that his feelings toward Kreeshkra had changed so swiftly. Last night, when she had revived from her knockout a mile or so beyond burning Sarheenmar, he had been ready to ravage and slay her, but she had comported herself with such courage and later proven herself such a spirited and sympathetic companion, and possessed of a ready wit, though somewhat dry, as befitted a skeleton, that when the pink rim of dawn had added itself to and then drunk the city’s flames, it had seemed the natural thing that she should ride pillion behind him as he resumed his journey south. Indeed, he’d thought, such a comrade might daunt without fight the brigands who swanned around Ilthmar and thought Ghouls a myth. He had offered her bread, which she refused, and wine, which she drank sparingly. Toward evening his arrow had brought down a desert antelope and they had feasted well, she devouring her portion raw. It was true what they said about Ghoulish digestion. Fafhrd had at first been bothered because she seemed to hold no grudge on behalf of her slain fellows and he suspected that she might be employing her extreme amiability to put him off guard and then slay him, but he had later decided that life or its loss was likely accounted no great matter by Ghouls, who looked so much like skeletons to begin with.
The gray Mingol mare, tethered to the thorn tree on the hollow’s rim, threw up her head and nickered.
A mile or more overhead in the windy dark, a bat slipped from the back of a strongly winging black albatross and fluttered earthward like an animate large black leaf.
Fafhrd reached out an arm and ran his fingers through Kreeshkra’s invisible shoulder-length hair. “Bonny Bones,” he asked, “why do you call me Mud Man?”
She answered tranquilly, “All your kind seem mud to us, whose flesh is as sparkling clear as running water in a brook untroubled by man or rains. Bones are beautiful. They are made to be seen.” She reached out skeleton-seeming soft-touching hand and played with the hair on his chest, then went on seriously, staring toward the stars. “We Ghouls have such an aesthetic distaste for mud-flesh that we consider it a sacred duty to transform it to crystal-flesh by devouring it. Not yours, at least not tonight, Mud Man,” she added, sharply tweaking a copper ringlet.
He lightly captured her wrist. “So your love for me is most unnatural, at least by Ghoulish standards,” he said with a touch of argumentativeness.
“If you say so, master,” she answered with a sardonic, mock-submissive note.
“I stand, or rather lie, corrected,” Fafhrd murmured. “I’m the lucky one, whatever your motives and whatever name we give them.” His voice became clearer again. “Tell me, Bonny Bones, how in the world did you ever come to learn Lankhmarese?”
“Stupid, _stupid_ Mud Man,” she replied indulgently. “Why, ’tis our native tongue” — and here her voice grew dreamy — “deriving from those ages a millennium and more ago when Lankhmar’s empire stretched from Quarmall to the Trollstep Mountains and from Earth’s End to the Sea of Monsters, when Kvarch Nar was Hwarshmar and we lonely Ghouls alley-and-graveyard thieves only. We had another language, but Lankhmarese was easier.”
He returned her hand to her side, to plant his own beyond her and stare down into her black eye sockets. She whimpered faintly and ran her fingers lightly down his sides. Fighting impulse for the moment, he said, “Tell me, Bonny Bones, how do you manage to _see_ anything when light goes right through you? Do you see with the inside of the back of your skull?”
“Questions, questions, questions,” she complained moaningly.
“I only want to become less stupid,” he explained humbly.
“But I _like_ you to be stupid,” she answered with a sigh. Then raising up on her elbow so that she faced the still-blazing campfire — the thorn tree’s dense wood burnt slowly and fiercely — she said, “Look closely into my eyes. No, without getting between them and the fire. Can you see a small rainbow in each? That’s where light is refracted to the seeing part of my brain, and a very thin real image formed there.”
Fafhrd agreed he could see twin rainbows, then went on eagerly, “Don’t stop looking at the fire yet; I want to show you something.” He made a cylinder of one hand and held an end of the cylinder to her nearest eye, then clapped his fingers, held tightly together, against the other end. “There!” he said. “You can see the fire glow through the edges of my fingers, can’t you? So I’m part transparent. I’m part crystal, at least,”
“I can, I can,” she assured him with singsong weariness. She looked away from his hands and the fire at his face and hairy chest. “But I _like_ you to be mud,” she said. She put her hands on his shoulders. “Come, darling, be dirtiest mud.”
He gazed down at the moonlit pearl-toothed skull and blackest eye sockets in each of which a faint opalescent moonbow showed, and he remembered how a wisewoman of the North had once told him and the Mouser that they were both in love with Death. Well, she’d been right, at least about himself, Fafhrd had to confess now, as Kreeshkra’s arms began to tug at him.
At that instant there sounded a thin whistle, so high as to be almost inaudible, yet piercing the ear like a needle finer than a hair. Fafhrd jerked around, Kreeshkra swiftly lifted her head, and they noted that they were being watched not only by the Mingol mare, but also with upside-down eyes by a black bat which hung from a high gray twig of the thorn tree.
Filled with premonition, Fafhrd pointed a forefinger at the dangling black flier, which instantly fluttered down to the fleshly perch presented. Fafhrd drew off its leg a tiny black roll of parchment springy as thinnest tempered iron, waved the flutterer back to its first perch, and unrolling the black parchment and holding it close to the firelight and his eyes close to it, read the following missive writ in a white script:
_Mouser in direst danger. Also Lankhmar. Consult Ningauble of the Seven Eyes. Speed of the essence. Don’t lose the tin whistle. _
The signature was a tiny unfeatured oval, which Fafhrd knew to be one of the sigils of Sheelba of the Eyeless Face.
White jaw resting on folded white knuckles, Kreeshkra watched the Northerner from her inscrutable black eye pits as he buckled on his sword.
“You’re leaving me,” she asserted in a flat voice.
“Yes, Bonny Bones, I must ride south like the wind,” Fafhrd admitted hurriedly. “A lifelong comrade’s in immense peril.”
“A man, of course,” she divined with the same tonelessness. “Even Ghoulish men save their greatest love for their male swordmates.”
“It’s a different sort of love,” Fafhrd started to argue as he untied the mare from the thorn tree, feeling at the flat pouch hanging from the saddlebow, to make sure it still held the thin tin cylinder. Then, more practically, “There’s still half the antelope to give you strength for your trudge home — and it’s uncooked too.”
“So you assume my people are eaters of carrion, and that half a dead antelope is a proper measure of what I mean to you?”
“Well, I’d always heard that Ghouls … and no, of course, I’m not trying to _pay_ you….Look here, Bonny Bones — I won’t argue with you, you’re much too good at it. Suffice it that I must course like the lonely thunderbolt to Lankhmar, pausing only to consult my master sorcerer. I couldn’t take you — or anyone! — on that journey.”
Kreeshkra looked around curiously. “Who asked to go? The bat?”
Fafhrd bit his lip, then said, “Here, take my hunting knife,” and when she made no reply, laid it by her hand. “Can you shoot an arrow?”
The skeleton girl observed to some invisible listener, “Next the Mud Man will be asking if I can slice a liver. Oh well, I should doubtless have tired of him in another night and on pretext of kissing his neck, bit through the great artery under his ear, and drunk his blood and devoured his carrion mud-flesh, leaving only his stupid brain, for fear of contaminating and making imbecilic my own.”
Abstaining from speech, Fafhrd laid the Mingol bow and its quiver of arrows beside the hunting knife. Then he knelt for a farewell kiss, but at the last instant the Ghoul turned her head so that his lips found only her cold cheek.
As he stood up, he said, “Believe it or not, I’ll come back and find you.”
“You won’t do either,” she assured him, “and I shan’t be anywhere.”
“Nevertheless I will hunt you down,” he said. He had untethered the mare and stood beside it. “For you have given me the weirdest and most wondrous ecstasy of any woman in the world.”
Looking out into the night, the Ghoulish girl said, “Congratulations, Kreeshkra. Your gift to humanity: freakish thrills. Make like a thunderbolt, Mud Man. I dote on thrills too.”
Fafhrd shut his lips, gazed at her a moment longer. Then as he whirled about him his cloak, the bat fluttered to it and hung there.
Kreeshkra nodded her head, “I said the bat.” Fafhrd mounted the mare and cantered down the hillside.
Kreeshkra sprang up, snatched the bow and arrow, ran to the rim of the grassy saucer and drew a bead on Fafhrd’s back, held it for three heartbeats, then turned abruptly and winged the arrow at the thorn tree. It lodged quivering in the center of the gray trunk.
Fafhrd glanced quickly around at the _snap, whir, tchunk!_ A skeleton arm was waving him good-bye and continued to do so until he reached the road at the foot of the slope, where he urged the mare into a long-striding lope.
On the hilltop Kreeshkra stood in thought for two breaths. Then from her belt she detached something invisible, which she dropped in the center of the dying campfire.
There was a sputtering and a shower of sparks, when a bright blue flame shot straight up a dozen yards and burnt for as many heartbeats before it died. Kreeshkra’s bones looked like blued iron, her glinting glassy flesh like scraps of tropic night-sky, but there was none to see this beauty.
Fafhrd watched the needlelike flare over shoulder as he sped rockingly along and he frowned into the wind.
The rats were murdering in Lankhmar that night. Cats died by swiftly sped crossbow darts that punctured slit-pupiled eye to lodge in brain. Poison set out for rats was cunningly secreted in gobbets of dogs’ dinners. Elakeria’s marmoset died crucified to the head of the sandalwood bed of that plump wanton, just opposite her ceiling-tall mirror of daily-polished silver. Babies were bitten to death in their cradles. A few big folk were stung by deep-burrowing darts smeared with a black stuff and died in convulsions after hours of agony. Many drank to still their fears, but the unwatched dead-drunk bled to death from neat cuts that tapped arteries. Glipkerio’s aunt, who was also Elakeria’s mother, strangled in a noose hung over a dark steep stairs made slippery by spilled oil. A venturesome harlot was overrun in the Plaza of Dark Delights and eaten alive while no one heeded her screams.
So tricky were some of the traps the rats set and by circumstantial evidence so deft their wielding of their weapons, that many folk began to insist that some of them, especially the rare and elusive albinos, had on their forelegs tiny clawed hands rather than paws, while there were many reports of rats running on their hind legs.
Ferrets were driven in droves down rat-holes. None returned. Eerily bag-headed, brown-uniformed soldiers rushed about in squads, searching in vain for targets for their new and much-touted weapons. The deepest wells in the city were deliberately poisoned, on the assumption that the city of rats went as deep and tapped those wells for its water supply. Burning brimstone was recklessly poured into rat-holes and soldiers had to be detached from their primary duty to fight the resultant fires.
An exodus begun by day continued by night from the city, by yacht, barge, rowboat, and raft, also south by cart, carriage, or afoot through the Grain Gate and even east through the Marsh Gate, until bloodily checked by command of Glipkerio, advised by Hisvin and by the city’s stiff-necked and ancient Captain General, Olegnya Mingolsbane. Lukeen’s war galley was one of the several which rounded up the fleeing civilian vessels and returned them to their docks — that is, all but the most gold-heavy, bribe-capable yachts. Shortly afterwards, rumor spread fast as news of a new sin, that there was a conspiracy to assassinate Glipkerio and set on his throne his widely-admired and studious pauper cousin, Radomix Kistomerces-Null, who was known to keep seventeen pet cats. A striking force of plain-clothes constables and Lankhmarines was sent from the Rainbow Palace through the torchlit dark to seize Radomix, but he was warned in time and lost himself and his cats in the slums, where he and they had many friends, both human and feline.
As the night of terror grew older at snail’s pace, the streets emptied of civilian human traffic and grew peculiarly silent and dark, since all cellars and many ground floors had been abandoned and locked, barred, and barricaded from above. Only the Street of the Gods was still crowded, where the rats still had made no assault and where comfort of a sort was to be had against fears. Elsewhere the only sounds were the quick, nervous tramp of squads of constables and soldiers on night guard and patterings and chitterings that grew ever more bold and numerous.
Reetha lay stretched before the great kitchen fire, trying to ignore Samanda sitting in her huge palace mistress’ chair and inspecting her whips, rods, paddles, and other instruments of correction, sometimes suddenly whisking one through the air. A very long thin chain confined Reetha by her neck collar to a large, recessed, iron ring-bolt in the kitchen’s tiled floor near the center of the room. Occasionally Samanda would eye her thoughtfully, and whenever the bell tolled the half hour, she’d order the girl to stand to attention and perhaps perform some trifling chore, such as filling Samanda’s wine-tankard. Yet still she never struck the girl, nor so far as Reetha knew, had sent message to Glipkerio apprising him of the time of his maid’s correction.
Reetha realized that she was being deliberately subjected to the torment of punishment deferred and tried to lose her mind in sleep and fantasies. But sleep, the few times she achieved it, brought nightmares and made more shockful the half-hourly wakenings, while fantasies of lording it cruelly over Samanda rang too hollow in her present situation. She tried to romance, but the material she had to work with was thin. Among other scraps, there was the smallish, gray-clad swordsman who had asked her her name the day she had been whipped for being scared by rats into dropping her tray. He at least had been courteous and had seemed to regard her as more than an animated serving tray, but surely he had long since forgotten her.
Without warning, the thought flashed across her mind that if she could lure Samanda close, she might if she were swift enough be able to strangle her with the slack of her chain — but this thought only set her trembling. In the end she was driven to a count of her blessings, such as that at least she had no hair to be pulled or set afire.
The Gray Mouser woke an hour past midnight feeling fit and ready for action. His bandaged wound didn’t bother him, though his left forearm was still somewhat stiff. But since he could not favorably contact Glipkerio before daylight, and having no mind to work Sheelba’s anti-rat magic except in the overlord’s admiring presence, he decided to put himself to sleep again with the remaining wine.
Operating silently, so as not to disturb Nattick Nimblefingers, whom he heard snoring tiredly on a pallet near him, he rather rapidly finished off the half-jug and then began more meditatively to suck on the full one. Yet drowsiness, let alone sleep, perversely refused to come. Instead the more that he drank, the more tinglingly alive he became, until at last with a shrug and a smile he took up Scalpel and Cat’s Claw with never a clink and stole downstairs.
There a horn-shielded lamp burning low showed his clothes and accouterments all orderly lying on Nattick’s clean worktable. His boots and other leather had been brushed and scrubbed and then re-suppled with neat’s-foot oil, and his gray silk tunic and cloak washed, dried, and neatly mended, each new seam and patch interlocked and double-stitched. With a little wave of thanks at the ceiling, he rapidly dressed himself, lifted one of the two large oil-filmed identical keys from their secret hook, unlocked the door, drew it open on its well-greased hinges, slipped into the night and locked the door behind him.
He stood in deep shadow. Moonlight impartially silvered the age-worn walls opposite and their stains and the tight-shuttered little windows and the low, shut doors above the footstep-hollowed stone thresholds and the worn-down cobbles and the bronze-edged drain-slits and the scattered garbage and trash. The street was silent and empty either way to where it curved out of sight. So, he thought, must look the city of Ghouls by night, except that there, there were supposed to be skeletons slipping about on narrow ridgy ivory feet with somehow never a _clack_ or _click._
Moving like a great cat, he stepped out of the shadows. The swollen but deformed moon peered down at him almost blindingly over Nattick’s scalloped roof-ridge. Then he was himself part of the silvered world, padding at a swift, long-striding walk on his spongy-soled boots along Cheap Street’s center toward its curve-hidden intersections with the Street of the Thinkers and the Street of the Gods. Whore Street paralleled Cheap Street to the left and Carter Street and Wall Street to the right, all four following the curving Marsh Wall beyond Wall Street.
At first the silence was unbroken. When the Mouser moved like a cat, he made no more noise. Then he began to hear it — a tiny pattering, almost like a first flurry of small raindrops, or the first breath of a storm through a small-leafed tree. He paused and looked around. The pattering stopped. His eyes searched the shadows and discerned nothing except two close-set glints in the trash that might have been water-drops or rubies — or something.
He set out again. At once the pattering was resumed, only now there was more of it, as if the storm were about to break. He quickened his stride a little, and then all of a sudden they were upon him: two ragged lines of small low silvered shapes rushing out of the shadows to his right and from behind the trash-heaps and out of the drain-slits to his left and a few even squeezing under the scoop-thresholded doors.
He began to run skippingly and much faster than his foes, Scalpel striking out like a silver toad’s tongue to pink one after another of them in a vital part, as if he were some fantastic trash collector and the rats animate small rubbish. They continued to close on him from ahead, but most he outran and the rest he skewered. The wine he’d bibbed giving him complete confidence, it became almost a dance — a dance of death with the rats figuring as humanity and he their grisly gray overlord, armed with rapier instead of scythe.
Shadows and silvered wall switched sides as the street curved. A larger rat got past Scalpel and sprang for his waist, but he deftly flicked it past him on Cat’s Claw’s point while his sword thrust through two more. Never in his life, he told himself gleefully, had he been so truly and literally the Gray Mouser, decimating a mouser’s natural prey.
Then something whirred past his nose like an angry wasp, and everything changed. He recalled in a vivid flash the supremely strange night of decision aboard _Squid_, which had become almost a fantasy-memory to him, and the crossbow rats and Skwee with sword at his jugular, and he realized fully for the first time in Lankhmar that he was not dealing with ordinary or even extraordinary rats, but with an alien and hostile culture of intelligent beings, small to be sure, but perhaps more clever and surely more prolific and murder-bent than even men.
Leaving off skipping, he ran as fast as he could, slashing out repeatedly with Scalpel, but thrusting his dirk in his belt and grabbing in his pouch for Sheelba’s black bottle.
It wasn’t there. With sinking heart and a self-curse, he remembered that, wine-bemused, he’d left it under his pillow at Nattick’s.
He shot past the black Street of the Thinkers with its taller buildings shutting out the moon. More rats poured out. His boot squished down on one and he almost slipped. Two more steel wasps buzzed past his face and — he’d never have believed it from another’s lips — a small blue-flaming arrow. He raced past the lightless long wall of the building housing the Thieves’ Guild, thinking chiefly of making more speed and hardly at all of rat-slashing.
Then almost at once, Cheap Street curving more sharply, there were bright lights ahead of him and many people, and a few strides later he was among them and the rats all gone.
He bought from a street vendor a small tankard of charcoal-heated ale to occupy the time while his dread and gasping faded. When his dry throat had been warmly and bitterly wetted, he gazed east two squares down the Street of the Gods to the Marsh Gate and then west more glittering blocks than he could clearly see.
It seemed to him that all Lankhmar was gathered here tonight by light of flaring torch and lamp and horn-shielded candle — and pole-lofted flare — praying and strolling, moaning and drinking, munching, and whispering fearful gossip. He wondered why the rats had spared this street only. Were they even more afraid of men’s gods than men were?
At the Marsh Gate end of the Street of the Gods were only the hutments of the newest, poorest, and most slum-suited Gods _in_ Lankhmar. Indeed most of the congregations here were mere curbside gatherings about some scrawny hermit or leather-skinned death-skinny priest come from the deserts of the Eastern Lands.
The Mouser turned the other way and began a slow and twisty stroll through the hush-voiced mob, here greeting an old acquaintance, there purchasing a cup of wine or a noggin of spirits from a street seller, for the Lankhmarts believe that religion and minds half-fuddled, or at least drink-soothed, go nicely together.
Despite momentary temptation, he successfully got by the intersection with Whore Street, tapping the dart in his temple to remind himself that erotic experience would end in futility. Although Whore Street itself was dark, the girls young and old were out in force tonight, doing their business in the shadowed porticos, workmanlike providing man’s third most potent banishment of fears after prayers and wine.
The farther he got from the Marsh Gate, the wealthier and more richly served became the Gods _in_ Lankhmar whose establishments he passed — churches and temples now, some even with silver-chased pillars and priests with golden chains and gold-worked vestments. From the open doors came rich yellow light and heady incense and the drone of chanted curses and prayers — all against the rats, so far as the Mouser could make them out.
Yet the rats were not altogether absent from the Street of the Gods, he began to note. Tiny black heads peered down from the roofs now and again, while more than once he saw close-set amber-red eyes behind the grill of a drain in the curb.
But by now he had taken aboard enough wine and spirits not to be troubled by such trifles, despite his recent fright, and his memory wandered off to the strange season, years ago, when Fafhrd had been the penniless, shaven acolyte of Bwadres, sole priest of Issek of the Jug, and he himself had been lieutenant to the racketeer Pulg, who preyed on all priests and prayerful folk.
He returned to his complete senses near the Hlal end of the Street of the Gods, where the temples are all golden-doored and their spires shoot sky-high and the priests’ robes are rainbow expanses of jewels. Around him was a throng of folk almost as richly clad, and now through a break in it he suddenly perceived, under green velvet hood and high-piled, silver-woven black hair, the merry-melancholy face of Frix with dark eyes upon him. Something pale brown and small and irregularly shaped dropped noiselessly from her hand to the pavement, here of ceramic bricks mortised with brass. Then she turned and was gone. He rushed after her, snatching up the small square of ball-crumpled parchment she’d dropped, but two aristos and their courtesans and a merchant in cloth of gold got shoulderingly in his way, and when he had broken free of them, resolutely curbing his wine-fired temper to avoid a duel, and got out of the press, no hooded green velvet robe was to be seen, or any woman in any guise looking remotely like Frix.
He smoothed the crumpled parchment and read it by the light of a low-swinging, horn-paned oil street lamp.
_Be of hero-like patience and courage. _
_Your dearest desire will be fulfilled _
_beyond your daringest expectations,_
_and all enchantments lifted._
He looked up and discovered he was past the last luxuriously gleaming, soaring temple of the Gods _in_ Lankhmar and facing the lightless low square fane with its silent square bell-tower of the Gods _of_ Lankhmar, those brown-boned, black-togaed ancestor-deities, whom the Lankhmarts never gather to worship, yet fear and revere in their inmost sleeping minds beyond the sum of all the other gods and devils in Nehwon.
The excitement engendered in him by Hisvet’s note momentarily extinguished by that sight, the Mouser moved forward from the last street lamp until he stood in the lightless street facing the lightless low temple. There crowded into his liquored compassless mind all he had ever heard of the head Gods _of_ Lankhmar: They cared not for priests, or wealth, or even worshipers. They were content with their dingy temple _so long as they were not disturbed_. And in a world where practically all other gods, including all the Gods _in_ Lankhmar, seemed to desire naught but more worshipers, more wealth, more news of themselves to be dissipated to the ends of the world, this was most unusual and even sinister. They emerged only when Lankhmar was in direct peril — and even then not always — they rescued and then they chastised — not Lankhmar’s foes but her folk — and after that they retired as swiftly as possible to their dismal fane and rotting beds.
There were no rat-shapes on the roof of _that_ temple, or in the shadows crowding thick around it.
With a shudder the Mouser turned his back on it, and there across the street, shouldered by the great dim cylinders of the granaries and backgrounded by Glipkerio’s palace with its rainbow minarets pastel in the moonlight, was the narrow, dark-stoned house of Hisvin the grain-merchant. Only one window in the top floor showed light.
The wild desires roused in the Mouser by Hisvet’s note flared up again and he was mightily tempted to climb that window, however smooth and holdless looked the unadorned sooty stone wall, but common sense got the better of wild desire in him despite the fire of wine. After all, Hisvet had writ “patience” before “courage.”
With a sigh and a shrug he turned back toward the brightly lit section of the Street of the Gods, gave most of the coins in his pouch to a mincing, bejeweled slave-girl for a small crystal flask of rare white brandy from the walled tray hung from her shoulders just below her naked breasts, took one swig of the icily fiery stuff, and was by that swig emboldened to cut down pitch-black Nun Street, intending to go a square beyond the Street of the Thinkers and by way of Crafts Street, weave home to Cheap Street and Nattick’s.
Aboard _Squid_, curled up in the crow’s nest, the black kitten writhed and whimpered in his sleep as though racked by the nightmares of a full-grown cat, or even a tiger.