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To Cheat Death

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If you must cheat, cheat Death.

– Viking toast

To Cheat Death

IT HAD BEEN the voyage from Hades, both going and coming. First came the geas of doom brought on the big Northern barbarian Fafhrd, and small, wizardling thief, the Gray Mouser, from a tiny, pale man who posed the question: “Is it true you two think you can cheat death?” The Silver Eel, their home tavern, bustled with pleasantly raucous excitement. Fighting men and swaggering guardsman stomped the floor and clashed tankards to the shrill laughter of women. A pack of young lords, seeking thrills in a place known to be dangerous, tried to look bold at the bar. A pair of dancers in swirling silks and jingling bells danced atop a table, while others gamed with dice and cards. Nimble servers bearing open jugs of wine and trays of food dodged between all.

Fafhrd lifted his brimming tankard. “We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.” The Mouser, holding the dice box ready for a throw, paused and looked at the old man with the white, bulging forehead. “I say a cunning man can cheat Death for a long time.”

“I will pit my wits against any doom.” Fafhrd nudged his companion. “Look, Mouser, what do you think of this little black-coated mouse wanting to talk with you and me about death?”

A witty rejoinder died on the Mouser’s lips. He felt the pull of magic, black as pitch, creep across the back of his neck, and was compelled to ask: “In what words might Death call?”

The smaller man never changed his near-lifeless expression. “That would depend,” he said softly. “He might look at two such as you and say ‘The Bleak Shore.’ Nothing more than that. The Bleak Shore. And when he said it three times, you would have to go.”

A drunken soldier began to bellow a song. The gamblers called impatiently for the Mouser to make his move. Ensorcelled as well, Fafhrd tried to laugh, but it died in his throat. The tiny man remained silent. All sound seemed to fade around him. He did not move. And Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser continued to stare – fascinated and helpless – into his chill, black eyes which seemed to lead to a far and evil distance.

“The Bleak Shore,” he repeated.

Then those in the Eel saw the two rise from the gaming table and leave together. At first the gamblers called after them, the Mouser was winning and they wanted a chance to retrieve their lost coin. But something strange and alien had fallen over the pair. Of the small, dark man, not one took notice. The tavern door opened. Outside, the wind moaned, and a small, fierce dust devil swirled up at the threshold.

Then the door closed, and Fafhrd and the Mouser were gone.

I

THEY SURVIVED the terrors of the Bleak Shore. Through luck and skill, strength and dexterity, they survived. Perhaps they were simply too stubborn to let go of life, Fafhrd reasoned. Surely that played a part in all that came next. For the long journey back to Lankhmar took them from one deadly adventure to the next. A brush with a maddened sorcerer and a howling tower nearly took Fafhrd’s life and soul. It would have taken the Mouser, too, when he arrived to save him, but the cat found his way through for both. Another journey by sea brought Fafhrd into the clutches of Lavas Laerk (with a face like a dirk!) and near death in the realm of drowned Simorgya. If he had but heeded the Mouser’s warnings, no rescue would have been required. Still there was no adventure to be found in that.

Then came the icy trek through the Cold Waste, Fafhrd’s homeland, and a brush with seven misplaced Kleshite priests. Together, he and Mouser stole their sacred jewel, which so bewitched Fafhrd, he nearly killed his friend and himself. Perhaps, the Northman mused, it was the Mouser’s own connection to wizardry that brought those preternatural warnings. Again, the Gray One saved them both. Didn’t he have a lucky, cunning cat for a sword-mate? Such creatures were much prized in his homeland, though they usually walked on four legs instead of two. 

And here they were once more, through no fault of either, shipwrecked. They had spent the last of their coin – the journey had been rich with adventure, but low on profit – for passage on the good ship Smatha, only to have her scuttled by the overlord’s privateers. Fafhrd and the Mouser had been left to drown with the rest of the crew, but remained afloat until the Devil’s Widow, a small merchant’s vessel headed for Lankhmar – thank the Elder Gods, Kos and bats of ill repute – spotted, then picked them up.

The Mouser, struck by a falling mast, was much the worse for his days in the sea, both of them bobbing about like corks on the waves, and clinging to the self-same broken mast. They were penniless, but prepared to work for passage to Lankhmar. And work was what they got in leg irons and a brute of a slave master pleased to have new flesh to punish. It was said, by the ship’s ancient cook Gand Kelaan, all former slaves had perished to a man under Dovestrap’s lash, the sun and meager food and drink they were allowed.

“Some only rise by the pain of others,” the Mouser quipped sardonically, holding his cup up, hopeful for another ration of wine. Kelaan gave him a thimble-full, all he could spare without discovery. “We’re but three days from port. Captain Straggen will let you go, I expect. There’s not much to be had for you two. Maybe you, barbarian, for the mines or gladiator ring. They’re never out of fashion. But you … you be little more than drowned cat, boy, and Lankhmar’s harbor has enough of those.”

“Drowned, you say?” The Mouser issued a lopsided grin. “Why, I’ll be fresh as new in three days. There’s such amazing food and wine here, long days basking in the sun … I’ll be fit for your lady’s chamber soon enough.”

Kelaan laughed, delighted, a sound near-rusted with disuse. He was long and thin, as gray and shaggy as an old dog. He made himself meek and unnoticeable aboard the Devil’s Widow, but the muscle in his shoulders and arms gave the lie to that. He wore loose, ragged linen, and old, comfortable boots. He was two souls in a single body; strong and smart on one half, near dead on the other. But now he was pleased. “Fierce!” he chortled. Kelaan snagged up wineskin and cup, and waggled a finger under the Mouser’s sunburned nose. “Hold onto that, my boy. You might betray Dovestrap and his whip and live.” He paused, then gently thumped the small man’s head. “Live. Stay quiet and live. That will be your best revenge.”

Fafhrd and the Mouser watched the old seaman stumble back toward the galley, his blue eyes dead once more. One felt Kelaan’s determination to go on, but to what? The Mouser puzzled wearily. That such a man be doomed to a life like this. “Few are bold in old age that were cowards as children. That one knew when to fight and when to run,” Fafhrd said quietly. “I’d be careful of an old man in a profession where most die young.”

The Mouser sighed. “Yes – but what a life it is, Faf, that a man only lives because it’s become habit.”

“I hear you well, little man. Still, I’m in the habit of keeping mine – and yours. Small cats should know better than to bait the big dog. Not on this ship,” the Northman warned. His frown deepened when the Mouser coughed into the crook of his arm again. “By Kos, that mast gave you no quarter.”

“The mast? ‘Twas the ocean tried to kill me. You know the only water I love is found in a hot, steaming bath. And don’t even talk to me about the Cold Waste. All that snow!”

“Hsst!” Fafhrd made a sign to ward off evil. “It’s bad luck to speak of death on a ship. Bad luck anywhere.”

“And this has been such a lucky, lucky journey,” the Mouser groaned. “If only we’d been rescued by pirates instead of merchants. Pirates will only kill you or recruit you – and what are pirates save thieves on water? It would have been a better voyage.”

“I’d remind you it was pirates who threw us in the drink in the first place! Still, give me an honest thief any day.” Fafhrd huffed. “It’s only the civilized that treat others like property and make slaves of them.”

“We’ll escape at Lankhmar’s docks.” The Mouser sagged back against the bulkhead and closed his eyes. “City of Sevenscore Smokes, I’ll welcome its black smog and kiss its stony ground when we land.”

“And I will join you, Mouser mine,” Fafhrd said to himself as his companion fell into bone-weary slumber. He wanted to ease that tousled head onto his lap, give whatever small comfort he could, but it wasn’t the time. Not now. Slim and sleekly muscled, the cat was now little more than skin-over bones. His hair, usually cut to his chin, had grown long and snarled with knots. And that cough was only getting worse. Kelaan’s teas seemed to help, but the day’s labors and Dovestrap’s lash ... he cursed beneath his breath.

Three more long days.

To Cheat Death - Chapter 2 follows