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To Cheat Death

Chapter Text

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.


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 Northerner 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 Northerner 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 

Chapter Text

THE NEXT day was hard; the second day worse. Dovestrap hovered over them like a vulture while they swabbed the deck. Save for the waves and creak of sails and ropes, it was quiet and still miserably hot. At least, Fafhrd reasoned, the slave master was large enough to create a pool of shade.

“What? No chatter again today, kitten?” Dovestrap slapped braided leather against his palm. “Where’s that sharp tongue?”

The Mouser sat back on his heels, exhausted and annoyed; not a good combination. “I’m tired. Stick pins later, will you? Perhaps I’ll think of something.”

“I’ll take no orders from the likes of you!”

“Good to know, o sensitive one.” The Mouser lifted the bucket. “Move aside then. You don’t want to get wet.”

Dovestrap took a clumsy step back from the swamp of seawater the Mouser dashed onto the deck. Fafhrd choked back a warning, then a laugh watching the bastard dance. He caught the Mouser’s merry wink, then bowed once more to the task at hand. And was on his feet in a flash as Dovestrap’s whip cracked, landing full across the Mouser’s back, driving him down as it raised another bloody welt. Snarling, the Northman grasped the slave master’s wrist before he could land another blow. “I am going to make you eat that lash.”

Dovestrap tried to pull free, but remained locked in place. Fafhrd tore the whip from his hand, pulling him closer. “But first, I will peel you like an apple,” he promised. “Bald pate to stinking feet, you cowardly stuffed bag of bull’s piss.”

“Faf, no.” The Mouser rose to his knees. “No skinning! That’s my specialty.”

Flushed with rage, overtired and ill-used himself, Fafhrd spied his companion, eyes wide with warning. “Let. Him. Go,” the cat mouthed silently.

He had no choice. They were outnumbered, with no weapons save bucket and brushes. They had known worse odds, but their ankles were bound with heavy iron chain, guaranteed to sink them both should they chance fate and jump ship. With no immediate means of escape, Fafhrd reluctantly loosed his fist. Dovestrap pulled back with an oath, retrieving his whip. None could miss the fear on his face.

“What’s this?” A voice barked from behind them. “A mutiny? Explain, slave master.”

Fafhrd swallowed his anger to find Captain Straggen standing behind them. The soul of the man lay squarely in his clothes. Always the peacock, Straggen appeared more pimp than seaman in shinning black boots and white, ruffled shirt. Crimson-striped leggings fit him like another skin, its codpiece a grinning devil’s mask. Clouds of lace fluttered at collar and wrists. He wore a wide leather belt, circled with a silver chain and silk scarf. His sword and dirk were weapons of beauty and death. Then there was the gold; gold at his throat and ear, and gold holding massive jewels on every finger of his hands.

A lone gull shrieked warning above. Both Fafhrd and the Mouser knew a swaggering villain when they saw him. Straggen’s could have been a handsome face, but cruelty lined his cheek, his brow, his mouth. His eyes were blue, yet only spite gazed out. Crewmen made themselves scarce whenever he appeared.

“Explain,” Straggen said again, voice softer, a viper ready to strike.

“The barbarian attacked me!” Dovestrap blurted out. “I was but showing the hand of discipline to that small one there. That little weasel, that snake-tongued, chirping cricket!”

“I see…” Straggen gazed from the Mouser to Fafhrd, and back to the Mouser. “Well, what is it, boy? Weasel, snake or cricket?”

“None, my lord Captain.” Mouser sketched a small bow, still on his knees. “I am called Mouser, and am only a lowly house cat.”

“I’ll wager there’s more alley than house in you.” Cold blue shifted back to Fafhrd. “And you? Is it true what Dovestrap says – that this one is your friend? Your mate?”

“The slave master lies,” Fafhrd replied stiffly.

“He’s the liar!” Dovestrap blustered. “I’ve seen them together. Always whispering, taunting me! Planning something bold and bloody, I suspect.”

“I met him on board pirate-sacked Smatha, where we were both passengers,” Fafhrd continued lying. “He’s a wizard’s whelp with some small gift of magic. Lucky to have by your side in a game of dice. Mostly.” He waggled his hand. “There were good winnings until the sea took ‘em. We would crew for you, sir, but your mate here made us slaves instead. We’re both good seaman. Well,” he hesitated briefly. “I am.”

“And are you lucky, cat?”

The Mouser sighed. “At the moment, no, captain.”

A gleam brightened Straggen’s eyes. “Well mannered, I see. Almost pretty under that muck.”

“You flatter, but I’m no prize. Muck hides a horror; even my mother couldn’t stand to look at me. And I stink. My magic is nothing, a whim, a tale spun to dim barbarians to steal their coin. A pair of slippery dice was all the magic I had, also lost to the sea.”

“Yet ready to crew my ship.” Straggen lapsed into contemplation; then issued a smile that cut his face in two. “The solution is this. You, barbarian, will join my worthy crew. They’ll show you the ropes and keep you in line should you try to wander. You, lad, will become my new cabin boy. You appear to have the manners for it.” He turned on a polished heel, heading for the topmost deck. “Get him washed, Kelaan. I won’t have him fouling my quarters. Bring him with dinner, and don’t keep me waiting.”

The Mouser remained expressionless as he watched the captain depart. “Well,” he began dryly. Fearful of another potentially lethal outburst, he would not look at Fafhrd. “Well, that’s taken a turn. You heard the captain, Dovestrap. Release us from these irons, and get us food and a bath.”

It took a very brave or very foolish man, more likely a combination of both, to issue orders while still on his knees. In this, as arrogant as his namesake, the Mouser had no master save the glowering Northman at his side.

To Cheat Death - Chapter 3

Chapter Text

IT WAS GOOD to be clean again, no matter the circumstances. But it was Kelaan who brought them water for a wash. He scrubbed what remained of the Mouser’s gray silks, and applied a soothing paste of powdered herbs and honey to their wounds. They were crewmen now and deserved their keep. The old man served both full rations, filling the Mouser’s cup with the ship’s sour wine until it threatened to overflow, and then again when he finished.

“Drink this all, mite. Every drop,” he said gently. “We’ll be in Lankhmar on the morning tide. The gulls promise landfall; the colony soars above.”

Fafhrd ate in silence, every bite and swallow more bitter than the last. Still, he needed the strength; they both did. The Mouser darted sharp, worried glances at him as they finished the meal, but Fafhrd would not speak.

“Do you have happy stories?” Kelaan leaned closer, whispering into the Mouser’s ear. “A place you visit when your mind wants sleep?”

“Yes,” Mouser replied, vaguely puzzled.

With an aged and trembling hand, Kelaan again tapped the Mouser’s skull. “Go there. Keep it close tonight, very close. Shut your eyes and remember that place. You, too, barbarian. Go there.”

“I will,” the Mouser agreed, grasping the old man’s arm gently. “May the gods, old and new, grant you favor.”

“Save your prayers. They will not, and I no longer ask it.” Rheumy eyes sparkled with old grief. He stood. “Look to yourselves,” he murmured, and turned away disappearing into a secret corner of his own.

“Happy places,” Fafhrd growled. “This is hell! If I had just kept my mouth shut! And you! Keeping watch on you is harder than keeping watch on a hundred cats!”

“Tcha! You laughed too!” The Mouser caught Fafhrd’s arm in a fearsome grip, broken nails digging in. “Land is so close; they divide us to kill tonight. That’s the sport, Faf. You’re right, I shouldn’t have played the brute, but it’s done. It was only chance Straggen came our way, that he was bored and itching for game.”

Fafhrd clenched his fists, but made no reply. The Mouser’s eyes narrowed as his fingers bit deeper, drawing blood. “Do nothing! I need no rescue.” He drew in a shuddering breath. “Lankhmar comes tomorrow and we’ll be dead or free.”

The Northerner’s rough hand covered the Mouser’s. “Stand with me in battle, friend, and lie with me in bed.”

The Mouser arched his brow. “My dearest warrior, trust you to wait until we’re about to be killed to tell me how you feel.”

Fafhrd threw his head back with a roar of mirth and rage, the sound thundered throughout the ship, and those who heard it shivered. “There will be a way,” he insisted. Green eyes met a bright, fierce tiger’s. “That we live is all! And if not, we’ll dance in hell.”

The Mouser dropped a kiss onto Fafhrd’s palm. What use to fret and fear? Fate had them by the balls as she had since that night at the Silver Eel. Death, that ever constant maestro, loomed, so to speak. Movement came from outside the galley. Dovestrap come to fetch him for the night's entertainments, pushing his way through a pack of crewman as they shifted cargo from the hold to the deck, readying for the morning’s landing.

The Mouser’s voice dropped to a level only Fafhrd could hear. “Kill him for me?”

“With pleasure, little man.”

The Gray Mouser gulped the last of his wine. And, with a smile and wink, was gone.

To Cheat Death - Chapter 4 follows

Chapter Text

COPPER-MANED Fafhrd did not enjoy killing and avoided it whenever possible. Death brought no joy. He was a strong warrior, few better with sword or bow or ax, but he wept frequently – and was not ashamed.

Still, there were those who needed killing like sickness needed a surgeon’s hand. Night fell over the Devil’s Widow. The stars came out to surround a sickle moon, though their light was soon hidden behind clouds and the long claw of Lankhmar’s smoggy realm. Land was so near, Fafhrd heard the city bell carried on the wind; the harbor was only hours away.

A clumsy assassin began to follow Fafhrd as soon as he slipped away from the crew. Stealth was not his strong suit, Fafhrd mused as he led the man into a darker and more isolated part of the ship. His would-be killer still saw him as a chained slave bullied by Dovestrap, scrubbing decks and emptying dross. Straggen had made a small kingdom for himself on the Devil’s Widow, and filled it with men as debased as himself. The mistake – for all of them – was in the misguided belief they were better than everyone, another fault of the too “civilized.” Hyenas may have the force of the pack, but this lone beast was easily dispatched even by a battered Northerner.

Despite their brave words, he was worried for the Mouser. Straggen would have been easy prey if the cat were at his best, then Fafhrd might have almost felt sorry for him. But his sword-mate was skinny instead of lean, ill and injured; even his wit more self-destructive than usual. Fafhrd shook himself; dark thoughts helped no one, and he had a promise to keep.

Fafhrd found Dovestrap alone on the forecastle, pissing over the side. As frosty as his homeland, he approached as a silent shadow, finger to his lips; then grasped the slave master's throat in his fist. Fafhrd carefully fed Dovestrap his lash and felt no remorse, but indulged in no unnecessary skinning. He stripped the body of a grand gold earring and a pair of cheap rings. The metal was merely bronze, but the stones were worthy. He also found a decent sack of coins and a dagger; these would be of use. Afterward, he lifted and carried the body aft to pitch into the sea as he had his would-be assassin, a fresh treat for the sharks who followed the Widow's wake.

Dawn roused herself as the ship was pulled into port. Sails had been lowered and every able-bodied man gone topside to secure the Widow to dock. All save the new crew member who remained hidden, watching the captain’s cabin door. How sharp of the Mouser to set him on this quest, an errand to quiet the berserker within. He’d never known one as cunning whom, like himself, walked a narrow path between black and white. The cat would scheme his way around Straggen’s appetites, and land on both feet. Fafhrd reminded himself of this minute by minute. The Mouser had been so sure of himself; the Northerner was encouraged to believe him. But fate and fortune rarely traveled hand-in-hand; he also knew the cat was a master of lies, big and small.

Fafhrd scowled, his patience at an end. Dagger in hand, he prepared to sprint to that door and kick it open – then spotted the Mouser slipping outside, a long, black velvet cloak drawn around him. The cat locked the door and threw the key overboard. Fafhrd called a quiet signal, which brought his companion running catfoot. Still, as he drew close, the berserker rose again. The left side of the Mouser’s face was bloody and bruised. A thin, ugly line marred his throat – made by a chain previously looped around a degenerate’s waist? They withdrew to deeper shadow amidst piles of cargo.

Fafhrd hissed. “Your face –“

“It’s just a wound. No worse than we’ve had in a brawl.” The Mouser brushed Fafhrd’s hand away. “But Straggen – that’s another tale.” He tossed a heavy leather bag to Fafhrd, who peered inside. Coins, the Northerner found there, a small fortune in gold and silver shifting among other baubles such as rings. Many gold rings with large, expensive stones, the kind a man might use to strike a supposedly helpless creature. This haul would keep them well-heeled for a year, maybe longer.

The Mouser pulled back the cloak, which was much too large for him, and revealed weapons: Straggen’s dirk and an elegant rapier hung from his waist. He handed Fafhrd the captain’s sword and belt. “Just the thing for my new Cat’s Claw and Scalpel,” he purred. “And a Graywand for you until you find better. I know you like ‘em two-handed."

The Mouser preened, expecting approval. Fafhrd cupped his skull, bringing their heads together. “How in hell’s dark army …?”

“Rest easy, friend. My virtue, such as it is, remains intact. I used a trick as you might guess, and much acting.” Suddenly he appeared but a trembling youth, hand raised before him. “Please – don’t hurt me,” he begged piteously, then laughed destroying the illusion. “Straggen tossed me around a bit and I let him, just to keep the game in play. It hurt I admit, but so? When he came at me, trousers off and his devil’s bloom released, I punched him. Yes – there! And while the worm lay squirming, I kicked him in the ass – and just about everywhere else. It was most gratifying.” The Mouser suddenly became serious, smothering another bone-jarring cough with the back of his arm. “This has been the worst journey, Faf. The worst!”

“You’ll get no argument from me. You need a healer.”

“I need a drink. Strong and lots of it. And, all right, a healer,” he conceded. “You as well, I trow. You took most of the beatings. I nearly lost you on this journey – too many times!”

“I’m just a bigger target. And no mast fell on me.” He belted the sword and scabbard around his waist. “But the journey’s not done yet. What of Straggen?” he asked, although he knew the answer.

“Dead, the careless toad, leaving so many weapons about. I stabbed him with his dinner knife.” He shot Fafhrd a dark glance. “I didn’t dawdle, just killed him. I hated touching him. I’m sorry I made you wait, but I thought it safer for us to stay hidden till we docked. Let’s find Kelaan. Mayhap he’d come with us. I’m sure we could get him a place at the Eel. The Widow’s no place for him, especially now. And he was kind to us.”

Fafhrd grasped the Mouser’s shoulder, careful not to touch any wound. Despite their failings, which were, in truth, many, they shared an inborn decency that could not be beaten out of them. “I’m glad you’re alive, little man,” he said.

“And I, you.” Here was the Mouser’s “happy place.” No need to close his eyes. He covered Fafhrd’s hand with his own. “’S truth, I don’t believe we shall ever die.”

“That’s a promise I’ll hold you to.”

The Mouser squeezed the hand on his shoulder. “Done!”

To Cheat Death - Chapter 5 follows

Chapter Text

KELAAN WAS indeed pleased to join them. He threw his few belongings into a sack – some clothing, but mostly jars of this and that, and pouches of herbs, a favorite mortar and pestle – and was ready in a flash, tucking kitchen knives and other tools into his belt and boots. It made some sense, Fafhrd thought, having the old mariner accompany them as they strolled down the gangplank. Those watching might be less suspicious; most were still busy with the ship. What would they do when they found their captain dead, Fafhrd wondered. Morn him or be glad he was done with? The Northerner would put money on the latter.

So it didn’t seem unusual that he now walked armed. At any rate, no one questioned them as they left for the docks. No one cared to challenge Fafhrd, not with two of their own missing. And the small bravo? Well, if he had survived a night with the captain, he was harder to kill than any suspected. There was no blame in running, especially from Straggen. The crew wouldn’t stop him, especially not with the tall redhead at his side. One crewman peered at them, openly curious; another grinned lewdly at the Mouser. The cat returned the leer, with a wink. The joke, after all, was on them.

But the Mouser’s humor faded as they pushed deeper into the labyrinth of Lankhmar’s silty streets. His step slowed and he lagged behind. Usually, he kept up with his long-legged companion through his own spirited double-step, but weakness slowed him. Soon enough, the Mouser felt Fafhrd’s arm encircle his shoulders, and was grateful for it even though he tried to pull away.

Fafhrd’s expression darkened. “Don’t do that.”

“Do what?”

“Play like all is well. I know you lie.”

The Mouser began an evasion, and stopped. “I’m hurt,” he said.

Fafhrd spirited them into an alleyway. He opened the Mouser’s voluminous cloak to find bloodstains. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I didn’t think it was that bad.” The cat laughed, half-mad with pain and illness. “Besides, we were supposed to be dead by now.”

Fafhrd growled a curse. Old Kelaan leaned in to peer at the wound, prying past the hastily-made bandage. “That needs seeing to. Quickly, I think.”

Fafhrd swept the Mouser into his arms. That the cat gave no protest worried him as much as his pallor. He hadn’t noticed; why hadn’t he noticed? “There’s a surgeon on Cheap Street.”

“Near the Thieves’ Guild?” The Mouser laughed again, and choked. “Why not kill us both now? Just get us to the Eel!”

Kelaan rattled his bag, as old and worn as himself. “I can stitch him up. Ship’s cook is ship’s surgeon. It won’t be the first wound I’ve treated, or the last I’m guessing.”

“Why didn’t you say so?” Fafhrd snapped, quickening his pace to Dim Lane and the Silver Eel. The Mouser was almost as light as air in his arms. “Would have been better to know sooner than late, old man.”

Kelaan’s agility and strength increased the further he left the Widow behind; he was being reborn. “I thought you knew,” he said, lengthening his stride. “You didn’t ask.”

To Cheat Death - Chapter 6 follows

Chapter Text

IT WAS remarkably strange to be in Lankhmar again and only tasked with wounds to heal. There was no one to chase, stand up to or run from. No need to plan new adventure; the coffer was full. The warrior is best who takes time to rest, Fafhrd recalled an ancient saw of the Snow Clan. Like the Mouser, he, too, had been bathed, bandaged, and fussed over until sleep was no longer option but refuge. He collapsed in their old apartment upstairs, laying still as a corpse for the next day and night.

The Mouser slept in the bed near his for long days after Fafhrd awoke. Mostly, he lay as still as one be-spelled. Other times, he was restless, fighting battles and demons that lived only in his mind. It was during these times Fafhrd saw the sigals, black arabesques inked into his dusky skin, shift and change as they sometimes did during his night terrors. New ones formed, black as tar, while others transformed into new designs; some faded altogether and disappeared.

The cat had first carved them into himself before they met when a mad duke killed the Mouser’s chosen father; white wizard Glavos Rho, the man who had named him. The youth had returned from a quest to find the old men dead at the hands of Duke Janarrl, the home they had built reduced to cinders. Anger and hate took him like a plague. If Janarrl had no respect for white magic, let him have a taste of the black and die – even if the conjuring killed him in the process. It didn’t, but the marks of it never left him.

Mother Mort and Kelaan pushed Fafhrd away from his seat beside the Mouser’s bed whenever they entered. The scent of Kelaan’s pungent teas and Mother’s fragrant broths warred gently with each other as they fed him, bathed him and changed his dressings, discussing wounds and ills and treatments in hushed voices. Both assured Fafhrd all was well as if he were a child, leaving him less confident than if they’d called for priests. Impossible. Unendurable. There was only Grandfather, One-eye’s battered ginger, to share his frustration, and the old cat offered no counsel.

When fever threatened to overwhelm, One-eye had ice brought up, which began a storm: “How can you call this well?” Fafhrd thundered, which muzzled them all for a time ... at least until the fever passed, ending that terrible cough. The Mouser breathed easily now, even if he didn’t wake.

Ice was but one of the treats the Eel now stocked, yet served mostly to its benefactors upstairs. Most of these offerings remained tasteless to Fafhrd. A new dish or brew might catch his fancy, but lost its flavor since he couldn’t share it with the Mouser, whose tributes and jibes could spice any meal. There was no one to gossip with over the overlord’s latest foible or spin tales and drink and sing, no one to watch the sun and stars take their turn in the sky. Fafhrd’s body ached for him, too; to hold him, awake and aware as their breath rose and fell as one. As it was, he hardly dared touch him – even if no one dared push Fafhrd aside again.

Score another for that evil, cold-blooded sorcerer of the Bleak Shore. Fafhrd began to brood, willing his companion returned to him until one night, he could bear it no longer. Push a Northerner to the brink and a berserker explodes. He grabbed the cat and shook him as hard as he dared. “Out of bed, layabout! You prancing, fleabitten ratsbane – wake up!”

And he did. The Mouser charged back to life, rising like a fury. Shocked by his success, Fafhrd released him – he was unprepared for this. The Mouser swung the covers away and scrambled to his feet before the Northerner drew his next breath.

Fafhrd forced himself to a calm he did not feel. He knew this state well enough; well enough to stay out of range though it tore his heart. He cursed Straggen and all his kind to the sharks of the Inner Sea. Driven by instinct, the Mouser lunged toward his sword and blade, though he did not attack. Grasping Cat’s Claw with one hand and a fistful of hair in the other, he sliced away, wounding cheek and ear in his haste.

“Stop!” Fafhrd cried out, catching at his wrist. The Mouser spun at first touch, slashing out. The Northerner leapt back, surrendering at once; hands up, palms out. “Have a care, friend,” he pleaded. “There’s none to harm you here. No one! You wound yourself.”

The Mouser saw, yet didn’t “see,” at war with confusion. “See where you are,” Fafhrd insisted. “Look here – it’s only the two of us. Please, just … see me!”

Cat’s Claw at the ready, the Northerner’s words began to invade the fog. The Mouser dared a glance around him. Blinked.

“So …” A trained skald, Fafhrd could roar like a lion or speak as gently as falling snow. “You want to cut your hair. I can help with that, just give me the knife. All right, all right – keep the knife. Just, sit. Please. Keep your blade and sit.”

Taut with unspent fury, the Mouser complied, though he remained very alert. So this, Fafhrd thought and not for the first time, was what a mouse felt like under the eye of a watchful cat. He sucked in a deep breath, praying for a return to sanity. Little chance of that for either of us, Fafhrd murmured mostly to himself. “Well, I wanted you awake.” He unsheathed his own knife. “Just for your hair, only that. There will be no painful stabbing and cutting and bleeding. No messy walls and floors to clean …”

The Mouser sat in attentive silence; Cat’s Claw clutched in both hands and held tight to his chest. Fafhrd inched closer until the warmth of their skin merged. He had no defense at this range, and worked quickly cutting one lock after the other, tossing them onto the coals banked in the hearth. There, they died with a little flame and hiss, leaving only wisps of smoke. Little by little, the Mouser relaxed, bowing his head to allow access to the back of his skull, the nape of his neck. Heartened, Fafhrd sheared away in silence until only a scarecrow remained beneath his hands. He turned his blade flat, allowing the cat to look at his reflection. The Mouser observed himself, turning his head this way and that, sweeping long fingers through his newly shorn hair.

“Not a masterwork, but done,” the Northerner said. “Satisfied?”

The Mouser met his gaze solemnly and nodded. “Fafhrd.”


“We got away ... we’re at the Eel?”

“Yes and yes. How do you feel?”


“That’s good.” Fafhrd could have wept; he cupped the Mouser’s face in his hand instead. The latest wounds were mere scratches; the blood already crusted.

Dark eyes widened, bruised with pain. “Everything hurts.”

Fafhrd nodded. “Yes. It is how we know we’re alive.”

“I almost lost you.”

“Never ... it’s not that easy to lose a barbarian.” Fafhrd laughed gently. “Besides, where else would I be?”

The Mouser noticed Cat’s Claw still clutched against him, and set it aside. “You were hurt.”

“I’m well enough now. Men of the North are tough.”

“Yes, but … I have a sense I should say I’m sorry.”

Fafhrd shook his head. “There’s been too much ‘sorry’ of late, so no.”

“I’m sorry,” the Mouser insisted, very serious. “Forgive me?”

“I do, but there's truly no need. I’m glad you’re awake.”

“How long was I ...?”

“Too long - nearly three weeks. Kelaan’s still with us. And One-eye is married to Mother Mort! They’ve got four children."

“Four - in a year? You're talking goats, yes, not ..?" The thought baffled him into silence, but not for long. “I’m thirsty, too.”

“First things first,” Fafhrd said, drawing the Mouser up into his arms. They held each other close, then closer savoring touch and scent and breath, lips opening to drink in each other's fears and push them away ... until the Mouser’s stomach rumbled. “Hungry,” he said again, face buried in a mat of red-gold fur. “For everything.”

A quiet knock sounded at the door; Kelaan peered in anxiously. “I heard voices,” he began; then broke off.

The two turned as one, loosely entwined, but ready to fight, too … as much as they were able.

“Good morning, Kelaan,” the Mouser said, calming again. “Or is it evening?”

“He’s hungry,” Fafhrd announced, grinning ear to ear.

“Good,” Kelaan replied. “I will convey the happy news and alert the kitchen.”

“We need to lock that door.” The Mouser rebuked as the old man disappeared. Suddenly spent, he edged towards his bed. “We cannot sleep safely in an unbolted room.”

“Have no worries, cat. I was always here,” Fafhrd said, sitting beside him. A man didn’t protect a friend because he was weak; he guarded him because he was important. “Anyway, your healers needed ready access in case you sprained a toe in your sleep.”

“Your’s or mine?”

“Your’s, of course. Northerners –”

“Are tough. I’ve heard.” Nodding, the Mouser crept back between the sheets. He sighed and was content. Anyone could love you when the sun was shining. It was in the storms you learned who truly cared.

To Cheat Death - Follow to Chapter 7, the conclusion

Chapter Text

THERE WERE cats in the room. It was typical. Old Grandfather glared from the center-head of the Mouser’s bed, enthroned among the pillows. Another gazed out of the high-set window, tail a-shiver and chirping at birds, and two perched on the shelf beside him, as still as sphinxes. The two-legged feline sprawled on his stomach across the mattress, head and arms disappeared over the opposite side. That rump was a nice view, Fafhrd thought, until he heard a stealthy rustle. A familiar stench wafted through. Was that three-colored cat under the bed again?

Did trolls roam the Great Salt Marsh?

“I warned you,” the Northerner growled. “No more of those fishy bits in here. Do you want to kill me, little man?” He reconsidered. “I could as easily strangle you instead.”

“There’s a kitten,” the Mouser said as if that explained all.

Of course there was a kitten; the smaller the cat, the higher its rank; certainly higher than a long suffering hero-barbarian and celebrated skald. If he could have had his way, there would have been a great stomping of floorboards and cats running everywhere – as in out of the door or however they came in. There were just too many in too small a space, and always watching him. It wasn’t as if he didn’t like the creatures. By Kos, he loved them, especially the great furry foragers of the Cold Waste. Who knew where those mighty hunters came from? Perhaps they were born from the mountains themselves, falling like snow into creatures of fur and claws and teeth, spreading to other lands, growing smaller and more delicate in hotter realms. But always savage beneath their sweet appearance; always in pursuit of predators that would invade hearth and home. Vain as … well, vain as cats, who bowed to no man. Sly and brave and arrogant, he could write a saga about them, an epic to pass from one generation of poets to another.

The Mouser flipped himself over and sat up. He regained more color and strength every day. Now he sat, legs spread, heels drumming against the side of the bed. He closed the little bag in his hand and tossed it aside. He yawned and stretched, suppleness reborn; then snagged a plum from a nearby bowl. Idly, he tossed it back and forth, regarding Fafhrd with the eyes of a small, calculating tiger.

“Pay attention, Faf.”

“All right,” he grumbled, writing plans delayed again. “What now?”

“I’m about to seduce you.”

“Are you mad or joking? You’ve only just – ”

“Ya'bib ali, I'm not some thing made of glass.” The Mouser scowled. “I burn. So do you.”

“Yes, but … ”

“I’m at least as tough as a Northerner, tough as a cat and we have nine lives.” Ever the imp, the Mouser bit into the plum. “Sooo ripe! De-licious.” He arched a brow. “Care for a taste?"

Fafhrd chuckled and prepared to be pounced – at last. It was true; he, too, burned. Long, lean and very well-muscled, he sprawled in his chair as the Mouser neared and delicately removed the scroll he’d been reading. The cat swung his leg over Fafhrd’s and sat, holding the plum up. With a small flourish, he made it disappear; then reappear in his other hand; he pulled it from behind Fafhrd’s ear earning another small laugh.

“You’re so easy, barbarian,” the cat purred.

“Only part of my eternal charm." Fafhrd laughed. “Just who has who in whose hands?”

“We’ll see …” That said, the Mouser leaned in, bringing their faces together. He shared no kiss – just a moist, teasing promise whispered into the Northerner’s ear followed by a tiny nip to the lobe. Fafhrd blushed to the roots of his red hair, closed his hands around the Mouser’s waist and pulled him closer.

Shared laughter sharpened lust. The two had embraced during a long month of healing, kissed and held each other, but nothing more. After a bath, or when they awoke in the morning, Fafhrd made him sit on the bed and worked Kelaan’s salve into his wounds. The Mouser returned the favor, but their hurts were nearly healed, and each secretly mourned the end of their ritual. It was time for another kind of renewal. Surely they’d made enough penance. They could be as one again – not that that had ever really changed, the cat chided himself. Except this was better.

He snatched the plum away as Fafhrd came in for a bite. Then shot forward as sure and true as his namesake, moist, reddened lips closing on Fafhrd’s mouth. The Northerner willingly received his offering of sweetened heat; matched and parried every flick and thrust of tongue. He tightened his grip on the Mouser’s hips, lifting him and playing the crease that halved that admirable rump. The cat arched and hissed, catching Fafhrd’s nipple between his teeth, long fingers fastening on broad shoulders. They writhed together, heat to heat and hard; eager for release yet prolonging the finish.

The Mouser offered the now-battered plum once more, juice running down his arm. “Still hungry?”

“Never more.” Fafhrd took the mangled thing and threw it over his shoulder. “Except now I’ve taste for other delights.” He captured the Mouser’s wrist and made a long, slow trail from inner elbow to palm. “‘Good,” he said as he finished, green eyes blazing. “Very good.”

“Let’s get to it then, yes?”

“Yes. Absolutely, yes.”

Sunlight streamed through the high-set window. Placing his hands on Fafhrd's chest – one of the Northerner’s best features – the Mouser further parted his loose linen shirt, working it off powerful shoulders and arms. Fafhrd slid his hands up the back of the Mouser’s thin tunic and pulled it over his head. Both rediscovered smooth skin between new scars. Tenderly, Fafhrd cradled the Mouser’s head between his palms, kissing him again and again, as determined fingers released buckles and laces, freeing them both. The Mouser spat in his hand and pulled their cocks together, starting a rhythm that swiftly increased. Fafhrd again dug into him, both rocking and straining. It was flame to wood and done quickly. They convulsed, one after the other, collapsing against each other.

After he could breathe, the Mouser gasped: “Let’s do it again.”

“Yes!” Fafhrd roared, and surged to his full seven-foot height bringing the Mouser, who locked arms and legs around him, along for the ride. They fell on the bed together sending cats running this way and that. And so they spent the day until stars glittered from the window above. They loved and fucked, first one, then the other. They slept; then bathed together. They ate the meals and drank the wine One-eye had sent to their room, and loved again, afterward dozing and saying little until the Mouser, head in Fafhrd's lap, tugged on a long curl of red hair.

"You're not angry with me anymore?"

"I was never angry with you, little man,” Fafhrd sighed. “Only that black hearted wizard who cursed us to Bleak Isle. Have you ever noticed how scrawny, mean and ugly they are? Sorcerers – a thousand plagues on them! Let them dance with Death and live to talk of it." He traced the Mouser's brow with careful fingertips, then his lips. "You should have told me you were hurt."

"We both were hurt; I was sick.” The Mouser turned away. “Kraggen was faster than I thought. He surprised me.” Fafhrd smoothed the new scar over the Mouser’s belly, and covered it with the palm of his hand. The cat closed his eyes, took the Northerner’s hand in his and held it there.

It should have been simple, a con of Innocent and Rake: classic Chase-Catch-Escape. He loathed it, yet expected to win even if he wasn’t at the top of his game. Memory turned his stomach. The play began easily enough, feeding Straggen bits of his dinner, teasing and snagging a bite or two for himself, a sip of wine and delivery of a quick, chaste kiss that promised more and better to come. Straggen was quickly led into the chase, but the Mouser kept his wits. When the beast first lashed out with his sliver chain, a true innocent would have tried to dodge, failed and been caught. Game over. The Mouser let it snake around his arm, ignoring pain; he leaned forward, capturing Straggen’s gaze with his own, lips but a tantalizing inch away. The links slackened and fell before the mark could react. It surprised Straggen, and pleased him, too, when his victim dodged low and whirled out of reach.

The trick should have worked. At another time, he could have kept going for hours until the beast wore himself down or made some clumsy, ill-timed move allowing the cat to strike. But the Mouser stumbled; a blow from Straggen’s be-ringed fist knocked him down. Next came the chain again, this time around his throat, strangling him. The Mouser struggled to breathe, to stay conscious.

“Call for help, pet,” Straggen insisted. The captain removed his garrote; he didn’t intend to kill. Not yet. He grasped a handful of dark, sun kissed hair, twisting it into a rope. The Mouser was dragged a short distance, then thrown, face down, across a hassock. “Scream – as loud as you can,” the beast growled, breath hot against his face. “There’s none to hear you. No one will come.”

Meaning what? Fafhrd hurt … dead? The Mouser twisted and nearly got away. A knife slashed gray silk and the skin beneath bringing new pain. Half-dazed, he heard the rustle of clothing, Straggen preparing for triumph. White-hot fury took him then, and the cat pivoted on his knee, drew back his arm – and struck with all his strength. “I am no man’s pet!” he snarled, fist slamming into Straggen’s most favored jewel.

The force of the blow caught them both unaware, but it was the beast who screamed and dropped like an iron weight. All grace gone, the Mouser lurched to his feet and kicked, finding fresh target – ribs, back! He snatched a knife from the table, crouched low and closed, stabbing Straggen through the throat; then, quickly, the heart using his full weight to push through. And that, he seethed, was game over! Then fell on his ass, still sobbing for air. Caught in a mix of shock and horror, he crab-scuttled back as far as possible from the pool of spreading gore, suddenly terrified it might touch him. The Mouser crashed into something hard and big – some piece of furniture – and was released into to a well of the blackest oblivion.

When he awakened, he was still clutching the knife. Old habits died hard. He had pressed that and his arms over his latest hurt, the wound across his stomach. It was shallow, thanks to luck, but it bled. And leaked all the more when he stood and scanned the room. Straggen was well and truly dead, no doubt on that score. The Mouser raided the sea chest, finding clean linen – another lacy shirt – and ripped it to strips, binding himself as tight as he could. Hours had passed, and breathing was easier although his throat still burned as if he had swallowed fire.

Spying dawn through the portal, he sent a prayer of thanks none had passed to look in. But he couldn’t linger, not when Fafhrd might arrive at any moment; the promise to keep away wouldn’t stop him but so long. He refused to believe his friend dead; Straggen only talked so, hoping to torment him. The Mouser foraged quickly, searching for anything they could use. He felt a slight hesitation before he relieved the captain’s body of its weapons and wealth; then began to prowl for other bounty. It distressed him to leave so much behind – large items – but there was plenty to carry as it was. They would have to travel light and move fast.

In a better day and hour, the Mouser came to himself once again. He was being held and gently rocked. Fafhrd smoothed his hair from his face, brushing the butchered mess behind his ears. The cat peered about anxiously, but it seemed no harm was done. No weapons in hand or furniture overturned. Relieved and angry, the Mouser pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes. “I hate this,” he hissed. “It’s all done – it’s over! Why do these haunts still chase me? All ye gods and devils, will it ever end?”

“Deep wounds are hardest to heal,” Fafhrd said evenly. “Call me. In night’s black hour when the demons come, call me, and we will fight them together.”

The Mouser laughed helplessly. “I am already damned for that promise I made so long ago it seems a dream itself. These visions are … excessive.”

“If thou art fit for no better place than hell, brother, look for me there. I will be with thee.”

Such deliberately formal intimacy gave weight to the Northerner’s oath. It soothed and frightened him. A silly comeback died on the Mouser’s lips; humor was his way of dealing with despair. Still, there was a time for jokes and this wasn’t it. He took Fafhrd’s hand in his own and held it tightly. “When I was very, very young, I once prayed to the gods to give me a friend,” he confessed. “They took their time about it, but they sent me you.”

“The path to paradise begins in hell.” Fafhrd sighed. “Lankhmar ... I would not be here without you, Mouser.”

"Nor I without you. That’s the geas I embrace." The cat groaned; necessity called. Reluctantly, he disengaged himself to climb out of bed. They might stray from each other for the fundamentals or sometimes variation, but each would always return to the other. Always.

“We are not the ones who cheated Death, you know.”

“You speak of that little wizard,” Fafhrd said, rolling to his side and propping his head in his hand. “He who cursed us.”

“The very same. I think he tried to use us in some black enchantment of his own, promised goods he couldn’t deliver.” The Mouser returned to Fafhrd’s arms; they stretched out across rumpled sheets. “I wonder how that worked out for him?”

“Not well, I hope.” Fafhrd drew him close again. “Do you think he’ll return and try again?”

“I think,” the Mouser replied, curling closer. “That tiny man has too big a debt to pay. I wager he’ll have no time for us. And if I ever see him again, I’ll run him through.”

“Your hand on it?”

“And my heart.” The Mouser dropped a kiss onto Fafhrd’s palm, a token beyond all price. He tucked their clasped hands beneath his chin, and fell into a more natural sleep. Beside him, the Northerner kept watch until he, too, drifted into slumber.

They would each rest without care through dawn and through day until the sun set upon dark and decadent Lankmar. Night fogs would rise to caress like a courtesan’s perfume. Exotic quests and haunting mysteries lay ahead, encounters with gods and wizards, innocents and villains. They would regret no challenge. Pride was good in men who earned it. So was strength when paired with love. What better gift could one man give another than a lifetime of loyalty and adventure?

Here’s to cheating, stealing, fighting and drinking!
If you cheat, may you cheat Death.
If you steal, may you steal your lover’s heart.
If you fight, may you fight for a brother.
If you drink, may you drink with him.
— Viking/Irish toast