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Swords Against Death

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Swords Against Death is a book by Fritz Leiber.

It is the second in the canonical series concerning Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.


The Circle Curse

(This is a linking piece between Ill Met in Lankhmar and the stories that are to follow.)

Burdened by grief, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stride out of Lankhmar, vowing never to return.

As they walk down the road, they are hailed by a voice from an odd little hut on stilts by the side of the road, which is keeping pace with them by walking down the side of the road on those stilts. The voice entreats them, in rhyme, to return to Lankhmar. They both demur (in somewhat pompous language), citing their disgust at what has happened to their loves (see Ill Met in Lankhmar), and continue down the road.

So ends their first encounter with the wizard Sheelba of the Eyeless Face.

There follows a brief account of their next three years, as they embark on the next phase of their career of questionable legality, morality and ethics, during which they roam widely across the world of Nehwon, honing their skills and broadening their experiences.

We focus in on their conversation late one night, as they settle down to sleep on their bedrolls. They lament the fact that they still can not forget their lost loves. Fafhrd in particular complains about being tired of life (which, considering he is still barely in his twenties, is some achievement).

At this point, a gentle cough from the cave behind them makes them jump. Here begins their first encounter with the wizard Ningauble of the Seven Eyes. He (or she, or it - they are not entirely sure) also suggests that they may achieve closure in Lankhmar, despite their vow, pointing out that vows are made to be broken when the time's right.

And sure enough, after some futile argument, the pair indeed decide to return to Lankhmar after all, where they decide to stay for a while, making it the base for their adventuring.

The Jewels in the Forest

(This, under the title Two Sought Adventure in 1939, was Fritz Leiber's first publication.)

On the strength of some library research, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are off to a strange treasure house in a forest clearing, in which they have heard are some exotic and probably valuable gems, ready to be plundered. They have a document describing it in advertising language.

Before the story has had a chance to properly get under way, our pair are attacked (ineffectually) from ambush. No worries, it takes more than a party of eight to bring down our heroes from ambush.

They arrive at the clearing which they have worked out is their destination. They enter a peasant hut, imposing themselves upon the inhabitants, paying them for the inconvenience. They make a quick visit to the treasure house in the approaching twilight, just to reassure themselves that they have arrived at the right place. Then they return to the peasants' hut where they stay the night, learning that the treasure house is a place to be shunned, as it offers as yet undefined dangers.

After a night's sleep, they make their preparations and off they go, but half way there they have an encounter with the daughter of the household, who tells them about a gray giant who clubs things to death. But of course she's never seen it.

Their next obstacle is the band of men who ambushed them the previous day. It turns out that they are also after the treasure in this house. Mouser knows them of old - they are the men of Lord Rannarsh. Combat (leavened by trickery) ensues, during which the band is routed. (But no doubt when they've regrouped they'll be back.)

Finally they enter the treasure house. The first thing of note that they see is a skull and a broken human skeleton. Halfway up the stairs is another one, on which the Mouser finds another document, in language similar to theirs, bragging of this treasure house. This gives them cause to question whether they have been lured there, as if by bait, to their deaths.

But no matter. Here they are, and here they are going to plunder. On a higher storey they encounter Lord Rannarsh who is terrified of something, but dies in combat with the Mouser before he can elucidate his fears. That terror suddenly descends on our two heroes, who are beginning to wonder what sort of treasure house (or temple?) this actually is. But they're good, they don't succumb to this terror, their desire for this treasure is too great. Next they meet a "holy man" who has been here forty years, who babbles a lot, and then he dies, horribly, offstage, crushed to death by something mysterious.

But they are here for a reason, so our two heroes set to work picking the black tarry stuff holding in a certain stone with the inscription specifying it as where the treasure is located. For the Mouser, terror turns to revulsion and nausea, so he takes a break to get some fresh air through the window - and he sees the girl from earlier. But while he's frantically trying to get out of the house so as to rescue her (he's convinced she's in terrible danger), Fafhrd has got the stone out and has grasped the biggest of the array of diamonds swimming in a sea of black metallic liquid.

Everything goes predictably mental at that point. Clearly the house is a beast and the gems are its brains. The dead people have been clubbed to death by stones from the house itself. Fafhrd somehow gets out, frightened out of his wits, but not before the diamond he filched is destroyed. And sure enough, the house itself collapses into rubble.

Our two heroes, somewhat battered, limp back to civilisation.

Thieves' House

Krovas commissions Fissif to steal the skull of Ohmphal, and a pair of jewel-encrusted sets of handbones, which were apparently stolen from the Thieves' Guild some time ago. Privy to their conversation on this matter is a certain red-headed wench, whose identity has not at this stage been revealed. Fissif in turn employs Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser to help him in this enterprise, intending to double-cross them out of the share of the profits.

Cut to a few weeks later. Fissif returns to the Thieves's Guild HQ with the goods, hotly pursued by Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, who have indeed been cheated by Fissif. Fully cognizant of the dangers, they chase him into the HQ and (having avoided several traps) are just in time to watch the red-headed girl make off with the skull and handbones. They give chase, but are frustrated by a heavy curtain and trapdoor.

Returning to Krovas, they discover he has been strangled to death, by person or persons as yet unknown. Mindful of their situation, they conceal themselves on hearing approaching voices. It's Sleyvas, with a fearful Fissif. The latter tells his story, up to where the bones themselves killed Krovas. Sleyvas isn't sure whether to buy this (thinking that Fissif himself may have killed Krovas), but at that point he is made aware that Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are still in the vicinity.

Entertaining mayhem, during which Fafhrd gets hit on the head. The two make the best escape they can through the maze that is the Thieves' House, during which time Fafhrd suffers more cracks to the head, stupefying him further. The pair separate, agreeing to meet at the Silver Eel.

Fafhrd gets hopelessly lost, having had a bad time because of his head injury. Eventually he finds himself in a deep hot dusty dungeon, completely dark. He must be delirious, because he fancies he can hear ghostly skeletons talking to him, demanding that he return the Skull of Ohmphal to them - by next midnight. If not, he is a dead man. In terror, Fafhrd flees, somehow managing to find his way out, only to be cold-cocked by Fissif, who brings him all trussed up to Sleyvas.

Not being able to make head or tail of what Fafhrd is deliriously mumbling except "next midnight", they send a message to the Gray Mouser, who is of course waiting in the Silver Eel, that unless he returns the skull by next midnight they would kill Fafhrd, slowly.

Mouser disguises himself as an old hag who tells fortunes, and blags his way into the apartments of Ivlis (the red-haired girl of the first scene). After all, that's where the skull is. He notices that her room is a mirror-image counterpart to that of Krovas, and between them no doubt is the passage through which Ivlis (Krovas's erstwhile mistress) passes. During the following mayhem he finds the skull, binds Ivlis in her torn-up garments and finds the secret passage.

Meanwhile Fafhrd, as midnight approaches, is before the Thieves' Guild council, He talks about those deep cellars he had found himself in, awaking the secret fears and superstitions of the thieves (except for Sleyvas, who is too hard-headed to be superstitious). Spinning out his tale as long as he can, he listens for the grate of bone on stone. At the crucial moment the Mouser arrives, and with his voice impersonates Ohmphal - but then Ivlis gets in on the act, and all the thieves get to see is the Mouser (still in his old-woman costume) wrestling with Ivlis, who has got free, tumbling through the curtains in the alcove.

Further mayhem, during which time Sleyvas smashes the skull to prove that the superstition is groundless, and is of course killed by the ancient skeletons of the thieves from below who wanted Ohmphal's skull returned to them. A fitting end.

The Bleak Shore

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser have been bragging over a gaming table in the Silver Eel about how they have cheated death may times. A small pale man in a cowl ensorcels them with the words "The Bleak Shore." At which point our heroes get up, go to the dock, board Fafhrd's sloop (complete with crew conveniently aboard) and sail off into the west.

Nothing is heard for months until Ourph, their (usually) faithful Mingol sidekick returns to Lankhmar with a tale of how they sailed ever Westward until they arrived at the eponymous place, all black basalt and gray rocks. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser disembark and set out on foot, sending the sloop back with Ourph and the rest of the crew to Lankhmar. Ourph arrives back (having wrecked the ship and lost the crew) to tell the tale.

We return to Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, who meet the pale man in the cowl, who is a sorcerer whose calling is to hypnotise heroes and lure them to this place to feed the shambling, reptilian caricatures of fighting men that are just now hatching out of the black eggs that lie all around. After the usual mayhem, the Mouser works out what to do to stop this wasteful cycle of destruction (and indeed to save their very skins) and in a timely manner kills the sorcerer. Eggs and reptiles crumble to dust.

Their next task, of course, is work out how to get home.

The Howling Tower

In the middle of nowhere, on their way home, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser find themselves on a rolling grassy plain, on which they can hear the howling of wolves. Their local guide talks of a haunted tower nearby which is supposed to be the source of this howling. Despite his warnings and fears, they camp overnight. Next morning the guide has vanished, taking his pay with him.

The pair continue travelling through this lonely land, and at the end of another day they see this tower on the horizon, and as evening falls the howling starts again. No matter; they pitch camp. Fafhrd is in a jolly mood while Mouser is glum and apprehensive. Next morning it's Fafhrd who has vanished.

Bah, thinks Mouser, he's gone to the tower, the nincompoop. Off he goes himself at a trot, and arrives (after a fairly uneventful journey) at his destination by nightfall (it's further away than he thought). And the tower still emits that spooky howling.

After nearly having been crushed to death by a stone toppling from the battlements (enough to sharpen the senses of the most sluggish), he enters the tower and finds both the guide and Fafhrd. Both are heavily bandaged, but those of the guide are caked in dried blood, and he turns out to be dead. Fafhrd is completely uninjured, but comatose, with his sword placed neatly beside him.

A mad old man emerges, who (after the usual argy-bargy) explains that Fafhrd is in the shadowlands fighting the wolves that are making all this howling. The bandages are to stop Fafhrd, when he is injured in his battle with them, from bleeding to death too soon. He had reached the shadowlands by drinking a drug which the old man has made him drink.

The situation has come about from an incident in the old man's youth (who it appears had been born mad) when he locked all his dogs in a cellar without food or water and inured himself to their howling. And even though the dogs had all died, their howling continued. So he sends them heroes to fight so as to assuage his madness. And Fafhrd is just the latest of these. And as he watches, a wound appears on Fafhrd's wrist, under the bandages.

Mouser is sent in to follow Fafhrd, to help him out. But of course he forces the old man to drink some of the drug as well (wouldn't you?), despite his revulsion against such a callous act (Mouser has a secret compassionate nature). No matter. Into the shadowlands they go. And, as you would hope and expect, the dogs in the shadowland tear the old man to pieces and thereby find their revenge.

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser recover, and are once more set on their way home.

The Sunken Land

The pair are on a boat, having sailed the Outer Sea, and are about to pass into the Inner Sea and thence home to Lankhmar. Fafhrd is excited about having caught a fish with a fancy ring in its belly, with the insignia of Simorgya, the Atlantis of Nehwon. This is a legend known to Fafhrd, although the Mouser is unfamiliar.

In due course a ship comes sailing out of nowhere, crewed by people of Fafhrd's genotype. Fafhrd, as though ensorcelled, boards this ship, and (after some minor mayhem) takes the place of the one he has hauled overboard while climbing on. The captain of this ship, Lavis Laerk, demands silence from his oarsmen and feeds them nothing but wine.

Simorgya has risen from the waves, and Lavis Laerk is set on raiding it. Fafhrd is suspected of being a Simoryan spy (he's wearing the ring, for a start), but this matters not - after all, he can tell them where the loot is hidden.

On to Simorgya. A predictable raiding operation undergone, an equally predictable spring trap, from which (with the Mouser's help - he has followed in the sloop) Fafhrd escapes in the de rigueur nick of time. The members of Lavis Laerk's crew all perish, of course, under the attack of the creatures that have been unleashed. Simorgya sinks, and the pair are once more on their way.

The Seven Black Priests

The pair are raiding a mountain enclave somewhere up North, populated by a handful of black priests (it's their skin colour, they all hail from the hot southern land of Klesh) who are guarding a set of the usual priceless gemstones.

Considerable mayhem, during which the priests are killed one by one, and a particular gem is filched by our pair. Fafhrd is the one to carry it, but it is clear as the tale unfolds that it appears to be controlling him. After having spent considerable time leading the way back off the mountain, it turns out that they have gone in a great big circle and are back where they started. Fafhrd by this time is completely under the control of the gem, which is the brain of the mountain, which is indeed a living entity which needs new priests (the previous ones have been killed - see earlier in this tale).

Mouser rises to the occasion and performs the obvious act - he shatters the gemstone with his sword. The mountain erupts, the pair flee successfully.

Claws From the Night

We are back in Lankhmar, finally.

There is a strange spate of thefts, perpetrated by birds, to such an extent that people are taking extreme defensive measures (in particular, women have taken to wearing cages so as to protect their jewellery from attack in the street). Some people have even been killed (supposedly by poison on the claws of the birds).

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser return, as unobtrusively as possible in this time of disquiet, and inquire about a fabulous ruby that the jeweller Muulsh is rumoured to be about to give to his petty, spoiled, shrewish wife Atya. The Mouser secretly spies upon an amusing domestic scene featuring a dominance/submission game in which Atya has (as you would expect) the upper hand. Atya keeps several cages populated by exotic birds, upon which she dotes. This is clearly a bone of contention between her and Muulsh. As a bribe to stop her abusing him further, Muulsh offers her the ruby.

At this point it is clear to Mouser that he and Fafhrd are not the only ones after this gem. There are another two ne'er-do-wells in the vicinity who are equally intent on heisting this ruby. But before any of them can put their plans into effect, an ugly black bird swoops in through the open window and makes off with it. (Oh, what woe to Muulsh, because this, naturally, is his fault.)

Mouser catches up with Fafhrd who, meanwhile, has a tame snow-eagle of his own, Kooskra, who has successfully brought down the black bird which has stolen the gem. Mouser cuts open the black bird to find the ruby in its gullet. Fafhrd holds it up in triumph, but - d'oh! - a second black bird snatches it out of his hand and is off with it. Kooskra gives chase, but it appears that the first black bird must have had poisoned claws, and Kooskra dies from a scratch sustained (which grieves Fafhrd), and this time the black bird escapes.

The pair have seen where the black bird went with the gem - to the top of a particular tower - so off they go. Fafhrd climbs the tower while Mouser waits below. Fafhrd breaks in, while Mouser finds himself under attack outside (but we'll come back to him later).

Fafhrd, after some mayhem, finds himself captured and tied to a chair, along with another thief, Stravas. The tower is an old temple of Tyaa, the ancient bird-goddess, outlawed in Lankhmar for centuries. The goddess Tyaa has condemned these two to death by bird for having the temerity to steal things of hers (such is her hypocrisy).

Mouser manages to affect a rescue. Tyaa is of course the obnoxious Atya. Her imposture revealed, Atya flees Lankhmar, taking her birds with her, although she is believed by many to have drowned in the river Hlal.

The Price of Pain-Ease

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are still mourning the loss of Vlana and Ivrian.

While drunk one night they steal a house from Duke Danius, and plant it in the burnt-out lot where Mouser's first Lankhmar dwelling was (see Ill Met in Lankhmar). They inhabit either end, and infuse it with their own particular personalities. And during the next few months, they progressively go mad. This is caused by the fact that each experiences the ghost of their lost love. Each keeps this secret from the other, probably a bad move.

This comes to a head when the Mouser sees an apparition of Ivrian, an experience which upsets him acutely. Rushing to Fafhrd's part of the house, he discovers that the latter has vanished. According to the houseboy at the Silver Eel, Fafhrd has charged off Eastwards on horseback - on a horse that has, indeed, suddenly magically appeared. Similarly, one has just appeared for the Mouser, who wastes no time leaping aboard and haring off after him.

The horse, in fact, takes him to the dwelling of Sheelba of the Eyeless Face. Sheelba persuades Mouser to promise to serve him (her? who knows?) faithfully for ever, but first, he must get the Mask of Death from Shadowland, and kill anyone who gets in his way. He warns him of various complications he may encounter on the way.

At the same time, Fafhrd is having a similar conversation with Ningauble of the Seven Eyes.

And indeed, they each reach the Shadowland at exactly the same time, and have an unsatisying and frustrating meeting with their loves at the same time. Riding from this encounter, they find themselves dwelling on their various negative aspects (which was of course the entire aim of Sheelba and Ningauble in the first place).

Of course, they both find the Mask of Death at the same time. But just as they are about to fight each other for it, Danius appears on the scene and manages to cleave that mask exactly in halves. So now our pair are going to have to fight Danius (and it is shaping up to be a difficult one) - except at that point Death himself turns up and strangles Danius. This is too much frighten for both Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, who each grab the half of the mask nearest to them and scarper.

Neither Sheelba nor Ningauble are happy at getting only half the mask, and in their rage they destroy the house that our heroes stole at the start of this tale. However, Fafhrd has now got over his grief over Vlana, and similarly the Mouser is no longer so love-lorn over Ivrian. On the other hand, the pair are now the servants of Sheelba and Ningauble, who (it is apparent) are now themselves going to have to work together on occasion.

Bazaar of the Bizarre

Such is the first of these collaborations.

There is a strange shop that has magically appeared in the Plaza of Dark Delights in the center of Lankhmar.

Sheelba and Ningauble have summoned Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser to a briefing on the subject. The Gray Mouser arrives early, and is tempted into the shop (the eponymous Bazaar) by the exciting merchandise.

Fafhrd, however, meets the two wizards outside and learns that the Bazaar is in fact an interdimensional predator, and the exciting wares are illusory; what is really being sold is trash. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser have been employed to shut this operation down. Nothing inside is what it seems, so Fafhrd is given a mask (in the form of a cobweb) to allow him to see things as they really are, and a cloak to make him invisible.

Fafhrd's task (already by no means easy) now includes rescuing the Mouser from the snares of the shop, but because the latter does not realise that everything is illusion, doesn't even know he is in danger. Not until he sees the broom wielded by the clown draw blood on Fafhrd does he realise that the latter is actually in serious trouble. In the nick of time he plants an axe into the head of the animated iron statue (which Fafhrd's attacker really is) and the whole bazaar starts to unravel.

Fafhrd manages to get the Mouser out of the shop, which vanishes as soon as he does so. Ungrateful brute, he thinks, then has the wicked idea of looking at Sheelba and Ningauble through the cobweb mask, and almost succeeds in finding out what they really look like.