The Swords of Lankhmar

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The Swords of Lankhmar is a book by Fritz Leiber.

It is the fifth in the canonical series concerning Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and is the only one presented as a complete novel.

Plot Summary

(Although presented as a novel, the first third was published as Scylla's Daughter.)

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser return to Lankhmar after some time away, and casually rout a bunch of heavies who are awaiting to obtain recompense for debts unpaid and (more likely) thefts perpetrated. This ambush was in fact laid on specially as a test of their mettle. The Overlord of Lankhmar, Glipkerio Kistomerces, wishes to employ them.

They are on a diplomatic mission to Movarl, Overlord of the Eight Cities, aboard a grain ship Squid, one of several. Also on this ship are the Demoiselle Hisvet, her maid Frix and her twelve white rats. These rats are highly trained, and perform tricks for entertainment. Also on board ship is a black kitten, who (not surprisingly) is far from happy about being in the presence of these rats.

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are in competition for the charms of Hisvet, who is (not to put too fine a point on it) coquettish. She appears to favour the Gray Mouser, as he seems less loutish and has a slicker tongue.

With a great big 'Hoongk!', out of the fog of nowhere emerges a gigantic reptilian head. Before Fafhrd can recover from his surprise, out comes another even larger one. The latter is being ridden by a man who is cursing in German. He is an interdimensional collector of beasts for a zoo on some version of Earth, one presumes, somewhere in the Multiverse. He has a Lankhmarese-German dictionary, which he can employ to some useful effect. He introduces himself as Karl Treuherz, and his sea-monster as Scylla in tribute to Homer. Scylla, apparently, eats rats. She definitely goes for Hisvet with a lunge, which is a mortifying display of bad manners in Treuherz's eyes. He rides Scylla away with a cordial apology.

Meanwhile it appears that the Clam, one of Squid's sister ships, has been overrun with rats and has foundered. Hisvet's rats are blamed (via some superstition), and it is noticed that probably one of them is missing. There are surely but eleven now. Mouser springs to her defence (besotted as he is). The other sailors are suspicious, and now suspect Mouser for being in league with the rats. A challenge is issued, and Fafhrd beats Lukeen in one-to-one combat, thereby upholding Hisvet's honour.

Fafhrd and the Mouser have pledged themselves to watch Hisvet and her rats continuously, so as to ensure that none of them is the instrument of another ship going down. However, the pair are drugged by the cook and tied up. This is unfortunate, as the rats take over the ship. Not only are there the eleven white rats, but many ordinary black ship rats, all co-ordinating their attack on the remaining sailors that haven't fled in terror. However, Frix and Hisvet refuse to free our two heroes, still tied up against the ship's fitments. Fafhrd is still asleep from the drugged curry, while the Mouser has gradually been sawing through his bonds with a sharpened coin. The black kitten is clawing away at Fafhrd's face, trying to wake him, because the pair desperately need to be free and alert.

Squid is boarded by Hisvin, the father of Hisvet, and his henchmen. They discuss their grandiose lunatic plan for the rats (to which they are clearly kin) taking over the world. Skwee, chief of Hisvet's rats, can be heard speaking Lankhmarese. But by now the kitten has woken Fafhrd up by clawing his face to tatters and biting him on the nose. Fafhrd can hear Karl Treuherz's cursing in the mist, so with a great 'Hoongk! Hoongk!' calls Scylla. Mouser finally breaks free, and frees Fafhrd. Copious mayhem, which includes Scylla arriving and eating most of the rats on board Squid (did I mention she eats rats?), and the ship is saved. Treuherz exchanges greetings once more, and then, having found his own transport, hies off to his own homeworld with Scylla.

(This is the end of the part of the novel originally published as Scylla's Daughter.)

We next meet Fafhrd, hung over, having been debauching in Kvarch Nar, chief of the Eight Cities. He's been a naughty boy, and now has to flee to avoid a severe drubbing by the natives.

Meanwhile, Lankhmar is in the grip of a plague of rats. We meet a maid employed by Glipkerio Kistomerces. (It is worth pointing out, because this is apparently important to the author, that his maids are shaven hairless all over, and go completely naked.) This particular maid, startled by a rat unexpectedly poking its head up from under a loose tile, drops a tray of confectionery all over the floor. So she's going to get a severe whipping.

The Gray Mouser arrives back in Lankhmar, and presents himself at the Imperial palace, to find that Hisvin has arrived first, and has the ear of Glipkerio. He is going to cast a spell, he says, that will rid Lankhmar of the rats, but it has to wait for auspicious astrological circumstances. Anyone with half a brain-cell's worth of astrological know-how, Lankhmar or not, will know that Hisvin is talking the most righteous rubbish, but Glipkerio is evidently so lacking.

Mouser meets Reetha, the slave that we met earlier, and notes the whip-marks. He knows Samanda, the mistress of the kitchen, of old, and knows that it is she who administers the whippings. The Mouser is, of course, the only one to have shown humanity to Reetha that she can remember.

Meanwhile, Fafhrd finds himself in the middle of a war between the Mingols and the Eight Cities, which is somewhat thwarting his aim to find his way back to Lankhmar. But something is upsetting even the Mingols ...

And the plague of rats is worsening in Lankhmar. But The Mouser is still lust-struck with Hisvet, to such an extent that only she can arouse him. This is probably because of the needle (a dart from a crossbow dimensioned for a rat that he has received on board the Squid) embedded in the skin of his temple - a powerful lust-spell indeed. He meets her clandestinely in a secret garden; she allows him to caress Frix in proxy to her, as long as he gaze at Hisvet, such is the level of coquettish arrogance that she can get away with. Except at the height of passion he is attacked by a pair of Mingols, and he barely escapes. At this stage the Mouser decides he is woefully out of his depth, and decides to go to his patron, Sheelba of the Eyeless Face, for advice.

Fafhrd, meanwhile, in the ruins of Sarheenmar, finds himself in combat with a gang of Ghouls, a breed of humanoid whose flesh is invisibly transparent to such an extent that they look like animated skeletons. He kills three of them, then realises (from the cosmetics on her breasts) that the fourth one is female (and for all of who he is, he does not kill women). He knocks her out and carries her off across the saddle of his horse.

And in Lankhmar, the plague of rats worsens yet more. And the most frightening thing of all is that they seem to be becoming more and more humanly intelligent. If only, sighs Glipkerio, Hisvin would loose off his deadly anti-rat spell!

Meanwhile, Sheelba gives the Mouser a potion, which he is to drink "where rats are foregathered". The effects, whatever they are, will last nine hours. And that's about all the help Sheelba will give.

And in Lankhmar: On board the Squid, we see the black kitten, which has climbed to the top of the highest mast. Glipkerio is hectoring Hisvin to cast that spell (but the latter claims the astrological signs are not yet optimum). Reetha dreams of Samanda kneeling in chains at her feet. A girl can dream; meanwhile she reports her latest offence to Samanda, who is to organise a time for her whipping and let Glipkerio know, so he can watch. (Such is the personal predilection of Glipkerio.)

While the Mouser, back in Lankhmar, catches up on his sleep while Nattick Nimblefingers mends his clothes.

Fafhrd and the Ghoul he has captured, Kreeshkra, have become lovers. He calls her Bonny Bones, she calls him Mud Man. And a deep and abiding love it may well prove to be. How come she fancies him neither of them can fathom. But in the throes of passion by a campfire under the stars, Fafhrd receives a message (and a mysterious whistle) from Sheelba, and he must leave Kreeshkra and make haste to Lankhmar, where the Gray Mouser is in grave danger. Their parting is sad and bittersweet.

In Lankhmar, the rats are murdering the inhabitants: cats, dogs, Princess Elakeria's marmoset, babies, drunks, even Elakeria's mother (who is also Glipkerio's aunt). And nobody has the means to fight back, try as they might. Panic sets in and people start to flee in quantity. Glipkerio's cousin, Radomix Kistomerces-Null (who is a noted cat-lover) is rumoured to be planning to take over the throne, and (pacifist, or coward, that he is) flees to the slums, where he has allies. Meanwhile, Reetha has been whipped and tortured so much that she no longer has much fear of it, merely resignation.

The Gray Mouser is off out, having woken past midnight. What he encounters is disturbing - the streets are ruled by intelligent rats, and he is in serious danger, being alone and out after dark. And like a fool he has left his potion under his pillow at Nattick's place. He finds a street that is still crowded with humanity, intending to return to Nattick's. And on the way he sees Frix, who drops a love-note from Hisvet to him (exhorting him to bravery and patience) before slipping away through the crowd. And he finds himself outside the temple of the Gods of Lankhmar, who Do Not Want To Be Disturbed. And this gives him the germ of an idea.

Meanwhile, Fafhrd is making his way to Ningauble, upsetting the dwellers of Ilthmar on the way (difficult not to if you don't pay their hefty tolls). Fighting his way out of a brawl, he is pursued all the way to Ningauble by Ilthmar bandits.

Glipkerio can't concentrate on the council meeting because he's anticipating the disciplining of Reetha. (This is to happen at three that afternoon.) Hisvin tells him that at midnight his spell will be spoken, but Glipkerio doesn't want to know; his mind is already experiencing Reetha being whipped. But Hisvin specifically warns Glipkerio against the Gray Mouser, and this warning may well stick.

The Gray Mouser, indeed, has several friends in the employ of the Palace, which is useful. He announces himself there, and is admitted for an audience with Glipkerio. While waiting, he finds his way to the kitchen, where he spies on Samanda getting ready to give Reetha a whipping (it being nearly three). He topples Samanda with a wet soapy mop, and grabs Reetha to take her away. Too late - Glipkerio and an entourage of soldiers and the like have descended on the place. The only thing to do - down the trapdoor into the cellar, where they are surrounded by rats. Time to drink the potion - and the Mouser finds himself magically shrunk to the size of a rat. So much for Reetha thinking the Mouser would rescue her. As the Mouser disappears down a rat-hole, Samanda now has Reetha back in chains again.

Fafhrd finds his way to Ningauble, who (eventually) tells Fafhrd that he needs to climb the Temple of the Gods of Lankhmar and ring the bell. Oh, and the whistle will probably summon the War Cats (useful allies in these particular circumstances). And that's all the help Ningauble can offer. So Fafhrd is making his way to Lankhmar as fast as he can manage. And he appears to have pursuers again (probably those Ilthmar thugs again).

The Gray Mouser, meanwhile, is making his rat-sized way down into the depths of the rat city beneath Lankhmar. Fortunately the fashion there is to wear a mask - Mouser's has been hastily fashioned from the bottom of his cloak - so disguise is not an immediate concern. All very well - but he has been pursued by the rat militia, who corner him in the jakes. But he blusters his way past and escapes them - or so he thinks. He has the opportunity of exploring the place for a short while, before he is challenged by the militia rat who has seen through his disguise. This is Svivomilo, the greatest duellist and swordsman in Lankhmar Below. Not good enough, of course - the Mouser defeats and kills him after some spirited swordplay. Fleeing, he now finds himself in the personal chambers of Councillor Grig, one of the Council of Thirteen. The Mouser kills him, cuts him into pieces, flushes him down the john and impersonates him.

Fafhrd (or at least his Mingol horse) makes a supreme effort and finally makes it to Lankhmar. An all-night watch is kept aboard the Squid, where the black kitten is prowling below decks. Glipkerio watches Reetha being tortured for a while, and contemplates the forthcoming defeat of the rats at the sharp end of Hisvin's spell.

The Mouser takes his (Grig's) place at the Council of Thirteen, and while there, makes the brainwave suggestion that when the rats attack in force tonight, they do so through the Temple of the Gods of Lankhmar, in order to really demoralise the population of the city. We learn, incidentally, that Lord Hisvin is another of the council members. This latter is puzzled and confused by Grig's (that is, the Mouser's) personality.

Fafhrd is still fleeing three of his black-horsed pursuers. His own Mingol mare is at the point of collapse. However, he is rescued by Sheelba, and in the hut on stilts he is taken the rest of the way to Lankhmar, where Sheelba requests him (once he has done his task for Ningauble) to help the Mouser (wherever he may currently be - if Sheelba knows, he isn't letting on).

Glipkerio and Samanda have a tryst, in which they check out some exciting new whips. But Reetha needs to be kept under strict surveillance. What to do? - Lock her in Glipkerio's bedroom, where she is told to Behave Herself. So the first thing she does is spits in his night-draught, commits some other minor acts of petty vandalism and finally curls up in Glipkerio's bed.

The Mouser has settled into Grig's apartments. But no sooner has he refreshed himself than he has a message from his "mistress". Puzzled, he obeys this summons, to find none other than Frix and Hisvet, who of course know all about his imposture, having seen through his disguise. He continues to profess his undying love. They sup. Hisvet explains that they also use Sheelba's potion to change size (they also have one to make them large again). He also learns of their private passageway to Lankhmar Above. Frix, incidentally, mentions that once she has saved Hisvet's life twice more (the first was on the Squid), she would be free of her servitude. Hisvet removes the tiny dart from under the skin of the Mouser's temple. And at this point Hisvin arrives with armed escort, furious at (as he thinks) Grig carrying on with his daughter. During the resulting mayhem Frix saves Hisvet's life again, by catching a dagger in her hand that was meant for Hisvet's throat. And, grabbing his clothes, the Mouser makes good his escape. His pursusers, including Skwee and Hisvin, prepare to follow him.

Fafhrd climbs the shield-wall of Lankhmar in order to make an unobtrusive entrance, and is somewhat disturbed to find no defenders to thwart him. He makes his way to the Temple of the Gods of Lankhmar. At the same time, the black kitten leaves the safety of the Squid on a mission that he likewise can not ignore.

Glipkerio and Samanda, having reminisced fondly and gruesomely about past cruelties, decide to return to Glipkerio's bedroom.

Reetha awakes with a start at a noise, which (rather than being Glipkerio and Samanda returning) turns out to be the Gray Mouser, still naked, still rat-sized. He gives her six head-hairs, which she puts into Glipkerio's night-draught (finishing the mischief she started earlier). But then Glipkerio and Samanda do return. Glipkerio drinks the adulterated drink (and Reetha's mischief works exactly as she had wished). This is going to earn her another whipping, but first they have to catch her. She and Mouser are hiding in the bed, and the latter is not going out without a fight. Tiny as he is, he is even more difficult to kill than usual. But then the rats, headed by Hreest, join in the fun. Reetha picks up the Mouser and together they make their way to the Servants' Quarters.

It is eleven o'clock, and the attack of the rats is under way. HIsvin, Hisvet and Frix emerge into Lankhmar Above, and drink themselves big again.

Fafhrd climbs the Temple and prepares to ring the bell.

Samanda, Glipkerio and Elakeria (fatter than ever) are holed up in the palace, where Reetha has freed the slaves and is rousing them to revolution with a pep-talk. Hisvin arrives and announces the takeover of the rats (with himself, of course, in charge of liaison).

And Fafhrd rings the bells. Out come the Gods of Lankhmar, and the black kitten makes his reunion with Fafhrd. The Gods of Lankhmar, in their own special way, start clearing the streets of rats. And the black riders who have been chasing Fafhrd make themselves known. They are ghouls, led by "Bonny Bones" Kreeshkra.

In Glipkerio's apartments, the showdown begins between the palace parties. The freed slaves take down Samanda. The Mouser (still tiny) is beset by Glipkerio, Elakeria, Hisvet and Hisvin.

While in the streets, mayhem becomes more entertaining. Fafhrd, Kreeshkra, Gods of Lankhmar and no few human-sized rats are in combat. And the black kitten climbs Fafhrd's leg (ouch!) reminding him of the whistle. He blows it. The sound is of the largest and angriest cats in the universe all screaming at once. And the War Cats arrive - with the black kitten (surprised as any of them) as their leader. That task accomplished, Fafhrd is off to rescue the Gray Mouser.

In the midst of combative activity, meanwhile, the latter has suddenly become full-sized again. (At the same time, Elakeria has become just as suddenly slender and svelte - and titillatingly naked - on account of the fact that the extra matter that is needed to fill out the Mouser has to come from somewhere.) He now has the upper hand. Hisvet urges him to slay Hisvin, and rule with her. But then the other rats arrive, led by Skwee and Hreest, and in the mayhem Frix saves Hisvets life again. In the nick of time Fafhrd arrives and saves the day, but Skwee, Hisvet and Hisvin shrink to rat-size once more and vanish down the rat-hole. Frix is now free of her servitude, and turns back into the air-sprite that is her true nature.

What more? Glipkerio flees in a boat. Radomix is promoted to Overlord. The Black Kitten becomes the thirteenth War Cat (one of whom has perished in the fight). Fafhrd, the Gray Mouser, Kreeshkra and Reetha all make a dignified exit as a tidy foursome.