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I: The Circle Curse

A tall swordsman and a small one strode out the Marsh Gate of Lankhmar and east along Causey Road. They were youths by their skin and suppleness, men by their expressions of deep-bitten grief and stony purpose.

The sleepy guardsmen in browned-iron cuirasses did not question them. Only madmen and fools willingly leave the grandest city in the world of Nehwon, especially at dawn and afoot. Besides, these two looked extremely dangerous.

Ahead the sky was bright pink, like the bubbling rim of a great crystal goblet brimmed with effervescent red wine for delight of the gods, while the paler pink glow rising therefrom drove the last stars west. But before the sun could glare one scarlet sliver above the horizon, a black storm came racing out of the north over the Inner Sea—a sea-squall making landfall. It grew almost as dark again as night, except when the lightning stabbed and the thunder shook his great iron shield. The stormwind carried the salty tang of the sea commingled with the foul reek of the marsh. It bent the green swords of the sea grass flat and lashed into writhing the arms of the thorn and seahawk trees. It pushed black swampwater a yard up the northern side of the narrow, serpentine, flat-topped ridge that was Causey Road. Then came pelting rain.

The two swordsmen made no comment to each other and did not alter their movements, except to lift their shoulders and faces a little and slant the latter north, as if they welcomed the storm's cleansing and sting and what tiny distraction it brought to some deep agony of mind and heart.

"Ho, Fafhrd!" a deep voice grated above the thunder's growl and the wind's roar and the rattle of the rain.

The tall swordsman turned his head sharply south.

"Hist, Gray Mouser!"

The small swordsman did likewise.

Close by the southern side of the road a rather large, rounded hut stood on five narrow posts. The posts had to be tall, for Causey Road ran high here yet the floor of the hut's low, rounded doorway looked straight at the tall swordsman's head.

This was nothing very strange, except that all men know that none dwell in the venomous Great Salt Marsh, save for giant worms, poison eels, water cobras, pale spindle-legged swamp rats, and the like.

Blue lightning glared, revealing with great clarity a hooded figure crouched inside the low doorway. Each fold and twist of the figure's draperies stood out as precisely as in an iron engraving closely viewed.

But the lightning showed nothing whatsoever inside the hood, only inky blackness.

Thunder crashed.

Then from the hood the grating voice recited the following lines, harshly and humorlessly hammering out the words, so that what was light verse became a dismal and doomful incantation:Ho, Fafhrd tall!Hist, Mouser small!Why leave you the cityOf marvelous parts?It were a great pityTo wear out your heartsAnd wear out the soles of your feet,Treading all earth,Foregoing all mirth,Before you once more Lankhmar greet.Now return, now return, now!

This doleful ditty was three-quarters done before the two swordsmen realized that they were striding along steadily all this while and the hut still abreast them. So it must be walking along with them on its posts, or legs rather. And now that they were aware of this, they could see those five thin wooden members swinging and knee-bending.

When the grating voice ceased to speak on that last great "now," Fafhrd halted.

So did the Mouser.

So did the hut.

The two swordsmen turned toward the low doorway, facing it squarely.

Simultaneously with deafening thunderclap, a great bolt of lightning struck close behind them. It jolted their bodies, shocked their flesh thrillingly and painfully, and it illumined the hut and its dweller brighter than day, yet still revealed nothing inside the dweller's hood.

If the hood had been empty, the draperies at its back would have been shown clearly. But no, there was only that oval of ebon darkness, which even the levinbolt could not illumine.

As unmoved by this prodigy as by the thunder-stroke, Fafhrd bellowed above the storm toward the doorway, his voice sounding tiny to himself in his thunder-smitten ears, "Hear me, witch, wizard, nightgaunt, whatever you are! I shall never in my life enter again the foul city which has stolen from me my dearest and only love, the incomparable and irreplaceable Vlana, for whom I shall forever grieve and for whose unspeakable death I shall forever feel guilt. The Thieves' Guild slew her for her freelance thieving—and we slew the slayers, though it profited us nothing at all."

"Likewise I shall never lift foot toward Lankhmar again," the Gray Mouser took up from beside him in a voice like an angry trumpet, "the loathy metropolis which horribly bereft me of my beloved Ivrian, even as Fafhrd was bereft and for similar reason, and left me loaded with an equal weight of sorrow and shame, which I shall bear forever, even past my perishing." A salt spider big as a platter sailed close by his ear in the grip of the gale, kicking its thick, corpse-white legs, and veered off past the hut, but the Mouser did not start in the least and there was no break whatever in his words as he continued, "Know, being of blackness, haunter of the dark, that we slew the foul wizard who murdered our loves and killed his two rodentine familiars and mauled and terrorized his employers at Thieves' House. But revenge is empty. It cannot bring back the dead. It cannot assuage by one atom the grief and guilt we shall feel forever for our darlings."

"Indeed it cannot," Fafhrd seconded loudly, "for we were drunk when our darlings died, and for that there is no forgiveness. We highjacked a small treasure in gems from thieves of the Guild, but we lost the two jewels beyond price and without compare. And we shall never return to Lankhmar!"

Lightning shone from beyond the hut and thunder crackled. The storm was moving inland, south from the road.

The hood that held darkness drew back a little and slowly shook from side to side, once, twice, thrice. The harsh voice intoned, fainter because Fafhrd's and the Mouser's ears were still somewhat deafened and a-ring from that father of thunderstrokes:

Never and forever are neither for men.

You'll be returning again and again.

Then the hut was moving inland too on its five spindly legs. It turned around, so that its door faced away from them, and its speed increased, its legs moving nimbly as those of a cockroach, and was soon lost amongst the tangle of thorn and seahawk trees.

So ended the first encounter of the Mouser and his comrade Fafhrd with Sheelba of the Eyeless Face.

Later that day the two swordsmen waylaid an insufficiently guarded merchant Lankhmar-bound, depriving him of the best two of his four cart-horses—for thieving was first nature to them—and on these clumping mounts made their way out of the Great Salt Marsh and across the Sinking Land to the sinister hub-city of Ilthmar with its treacherous little inns and innumerable statues and bas-reliefs and other depictions of its rat-god. There they changed their clumsy horses for camels and were soon humping south across the desert, following the eastern shore of the turquoise Sea of the East. They crossed the River Tilth in dry season and continued on through the sands, bound for the Eastern Lands, where neither of them had previously traveled. They were searching for distraction in strangeness and intended first to visit Horborixen, citadel of the King of Kings and city second only to Lankhmar in size, antiquity, and baroque splendor.

For the next three years, the Years of Leviathan, the Roc, and the Dragon, they wandered the world of Nehwon south, east, north, and west, seeking forgetfulness of their first great loves and their first great guilts and finding neither. They ventured east past mystic Tisilinilit with its slender, opalescent spires, which always seemed newly crystallized out of its humid, pearly skies, to lands that were legends in Lankhmar and even Horborixen. One amongst many was the skeletally shrunken Empire of Eevamarensee, a country so decadent, so far-grown into the future, that all the rats and men are bald and even the dogs and cats hairless.

Returning by a northerly route through the Great Steppes, they narrowly escaped capture and enslavement by the pitiless Mingols. In the Cold Waste they sought for Fafhrd's Snow Clan, only to discover that it had been last year overwhelmed by a lemming horde of Ice Gnomes and, according to best rumor, massacred to the last person, which would have included Fafhrd's mother Mor, his deserted girl-bride Mara, and his first issue if any.

For a space they served Lithquil, the Mad Duke of Ool Hrusp, devising for him sprightly mock-duels, simulated murders, and other entertainments. Then they coasted south through the Outer Sea aboard a Sarheenmar trader to tropic Klesh, where they adventured a while in the jungle fringes. Then north again, circling past secretest Quarmall, that shadow realm, to the Lakes of Pleea that are the headwaters of the Hlal and to the beggar-city of Tovilyis, where the Gray Mouser believed he had been birthed, but was not sure, and when they left that lowly metropolis he was no surer. Crossing by grain barge the Sea of the East, they prospected for gold a while in the Mountains of the Elder Ones, their last highjacked gems having been long since gambled away or spent. Unsuccessful in this quest, they wended their way west again toward the Inner Sea and Ilthmar.

They lived by thievery, robbery, bodyguarding, brief commissions as couriers and agents—commissions they always, or almost always, fulfilled punctiliously—and by showmanship, the Mouser entertaining by legerdemain, juggling, and buffoonery, while Fafhrd with his gift for tongues and training as a singing skald excelled at minstrelsy, translating the legends of his frigid homeland into many languages. They never worked as cooks, clerks, carpenters, tree-fellers, or common servants and they never, never, never enlisted as mercenary soldiers—their service to Lithquil having been of a more personal nature.

They acquired new scars and skills, comprehensions and compassions, cynicisms and secrecies—a laughter that lightly mocked and a cool poise that tightly crusted all inner miseries and most of the time hid the barbarian in Fafhrd and the slum boy in the Mouser. They became outwardly merry, uncaring, and cool, but their grief and guilt stayed with them, the ghosts of Ivrian and Vlana haunting their sleeping and their waking dreams, so that they had little commerce with other girls, and that more a discomfort than a joy. Their comradeship became firmer than a rock, stronger than steel, but all other human relations were fleeting. Melancholy was their commonest mood, though mostly hid even from each other.

Came noon of the Day of the Mouse in the Month of the Lion in the Year of the Dragon. They were taking their siestas in the cool of a cave near Ilthmar. Outside, heat shimmered above hard-baked ground and scanty brown grass, but here was most pleasant. Their horses, a gray mare and a chestnut gelding, found shade in the cavern's mouth. Fafhrd had sketchily inspected the place for serpents, but discovered none. He loathed the cold scaly ones of the south, so different from the hot-blooded, fur-bearing snakes of the Cold Waste. He went a little way into a narrow, rocky corridor leading from the back of the cave under the small mountain in which it was set, but returned when light failed and he had found neither reptiles nor end.

They rested comfortably on their uncurled bedrolls. Sleep would not come to them, so idle talk did. By slow stages this talk became serious. Finally the Gray Mouser summed up the last trinity of years.

"We have searched the wide world over and not found forgetfulness."

"I dispute that," Fafhrd countered. "Not the latter part, for I am still as ghost-locked as you, but we have not crossed the Outer Sea and hunted over the great continent legend will have in the west."

"I believe we have," the Mouser disputed. "Not the former part, I'll agree, and what purpose in searching the sea? But when we went out farthest east and stood on the shore of that great ocean, deafened by its vast surf, I believe we stood on the western coast of the Outer Sea with nothing between us and Lankhmar but wild water."

"What great ocean?" Fafhrd demanded. "And what vast surf? It was a lake, a mere puddle with some ripples in it. I could readily see the opposite shore."

"Then you were seeing mirages, friend of mine, and languishing in one of those moods when all Nehwon seems but a small bubble you could burst with flick of fingernail."

"Perhaps," Fafhrd agreed. "Oh, how weary I am of this life."

There was a little cough, no more than a clearing of throat, in the dark behind them. They did not otherwise move, but their hair stirred at its roots, so close and intimate had been that tiny noise, and so indicative of intelligence rather than mere animality, because of a measuredly attention-asking quality about it.

Then as one they turned head over shoulder and looked at the black mouth of the rocky corridor. After a bit it seemed to each of them that he could see seven small, faint green glows swimming in the dark there and lazily changing position, like seven fireflies hovering, but with their light steadier and far more diffuse, as if each firefly wore a cloak made of several layers of gauze.

Then a voice sugary and unctuous, senescent though keen—a voice like a quavering flute—spoke from amidst those dimmest glows, saying, "Oh my sons, begging the question of that hypothetical western continent, on which I do not propose to enlighten you, there is yet one place in Nehwon you have not searched for forgetfulness since the cruel deaths of your beloved girls."

"And what place may that be?" the Mouser asked softly after a long moment and with slightest stammer. "And who are you?"

"The city of Lankhmar, my sons. Who I am, besides your spiritual father, is a private matter."

"We have sworn a great oath against ever returning to Lankhmar," Fafhrd growled after a bit, the growl low and just a shade defensive and perhaps even intimidated.

"Oaths are made to be kept only until their purpose be fulfilled," the fluty voice responded. "Every geas is lifted at last, every self-set rule repealed. Otherwise orderliness in life becomes a limitation to growth; discipline, chains; integrity, bondage and evil-doing. You have learned what you can from the world. You have graduated from that huge portion of Nehwon. It now remains that you take up your postgraduate studies in Lankhmar, highest university of civilized life here."

The seven faint glows were growing still dimmer now and drawing together, as if retreating down the corridor.

"We won't go back to Lankhmar," Fafhrd and the Mouser replied speaking as one.

The seven glows faded altogether. So faintly the two men could barely hear it—yet hear it each did—the fluty voice inquired, "Are you afraid?" Then they heard a grating of rock, a very faint sound, yet somehow ponderous.

So ended the first encounter of Fafhrd and his comrade with Ningauble of the Seven Eyes.

After a dozen heartbeats, the Gray Mouser drew his slim, arm-and-a-half-long sword, Scalpel, with which he was accustomed to draw blood with surgical precision, and followed its glittering tip into the rocky corridor. He strode very deliberately, with a measured determination. Fafhrd went after, but more cautiously, with many a hesitation, holding the point of his heavier sword Graywand, which he yet handled most nimbly in strife, close to the stony floor and wagging it from side to side. The seven glows in their lazy swayings and bobbings had mightily suggested to him the heads of large cobras raised up to strike. He reasoned that cave cobras, if such existed, might well be phosphorescent like abyssal eels.

They had penetrated somewhat farther under the mountainside than Fafhrd had on his first inspection—their slow pace enabling their eyes to accommodate better to the relative darkness—when with a slight, high-pitched shiver, Scalpel jarred vertical rock. Waiting without a word where they stood, their cave vision improved to the point where it became indisputable, without any more sword-testing at all, that the corridor ended where they were, wanting hole big enough even for a speaking serpent to glide away, let alone a being rightfully capable of speech. The Mouser pressed and then Fafhrd threw his weight against the rock ahead at several points, but it held firm as purest mountain heart. Nor had they missed any side tracks, even of the narrowest, or any pits or roof-holes on the way—a point they doubly checked going out.

Back at their bedrolls, their horses still tranquilly nibbling brown grass at the cavern's mouth, Fafhrd said abruptly, "What we heard speak, it was an echo."

"How have an echo without a voice?" the Mouser demanded with peevish impatience. "As well have a tail without a cat. I mean, a living tail."

"A small snow snake greatly resembles the animated tail of a white house cat," Fafhrd replied imperturbably. "Aye, and has just such a high, quavering cry."

"Are you suggesting—?"

"Of course not. As I imagine you do, I think there was a door somewhere in the rock, fitted so well we could not discern the junctures. We heard it shut. But before that, he—she, it, they—went through it."

"Then why babble of echoes and snow snakes?"

"It is well to consider all possibilities."

"He—she and so forth—named us sons," the Mouser mused.

"Some say the serpent is wisest, oldest, and even father of all," Fafhrd observed judiciously.

"Snakes again! Well, one thing's certain: all hold it rash folly for a man to take advice of a serpent, let alone seven."

"Yet he—consider the other pronouns spoken—had a point, Mouser. Mauger the indeterminate western continent, we have traveled all Nehwon in spiderweb wise. What's left but Lankhmar?"

"Damn your pronouns! We swore never to return. Have you forgotten that, Fafhrd?"

"No, but I'm dying of boredom. Times I have sworn never again to drink wine."

"I would choke to death on Lankhmar! Her day-smokes, her night-smogs, her rats, her filth!"

"At the moment, Mouser, I care little whether I live or die, and where or when or how."

"Now adverbs and conjunctions! Bah, you need a drink!"

"We seek a deeper forgetfulness. They say to lay a ghost, go where she died."

"Aye, and be worse haunted!"

"I could not be worse haunted than now."

"To let a serpent shame us by asking, were we afraid!"

"Are we, perhaps?"

And so the argument went, with the final foreseeable result that Fafhrd and the Mouser cantered past Ilthmar to a stony stretch of shore that was a curiously abraded low precipice, and waited there a day and a night for the Sinking Land to emerge with anomalous aqueous convulsions from the waters joining the Sea of the East to the Inner Sea. They swiftly and warily crossed its flinty, steaming expanse—for it was a hot, sunny day—and so again rode Causey Road, but this time back toward Lankhmar.

Distant, twin thunderstorms played to either side—north over the Inner Sea and south above the Great Salt Marsh—as they approached that monstrous city and as its towers, spires, fanes, and great crenelated wall emerged from its huge, customary cap of smoke, being somewhat silhouetted by the light of the setting sun, which was turned to a dull silver disk by the high fog and the smoke.

Once the Mouser and Fafhrd thought they saw a rounded, flat-floored shape on tall, invisible legs moving amongst the seahawk trees and faintly heard a harsh voice crying, "I told you. I told you. I told you," but both Sheelba's wizardly hut and voice, if they were those, remained distant as the storms.

In such wise Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser returned flat against their oaths to the city they despised, yet hankered after. They did not find forgetfulness there, the ghosts of Ivrian and Vlana were not laid, yet perhaps solely because of passage of time, the two heroes were a little less troubled by them. Nor were their hates, as of the Thieves' Guild, rekindled, but rather faded. And in any case Lankhmar seemed no worse than any other place in Nehwon and more interesting than most. So they stayed there for a space, making it once more the headquarters of their adventurings.

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