"I see we're expected," the small man said, continuing to stroll toward the large open gate in the long, high, ancient wall. As if by chance, his hand brushed the hilt of his long, slim rapier.The small man is, of course, the Gray Mouser and the big one Fafhrd, the two greatest adventurers in Lankhmar. Once again, the Twain find themselves being pursued by armed men, intent on doing them harm. This time, however, their pursuers are of a somewhat different sort, employed by "a venerable, clean-shaven, stern-visaged man in a black toga narrowly bordered with silver."
"At over a bowshot distance how can you--" the big man began. "I get it. Bashabeck's orange headcloth. Stands out like a whore in church. And where Bashabeck is, his bullies are. You should have kept your dues to the Thieves Guild paid up."
"It's not so much the dues," the small man said. "It slopped my mind to split with them after the last job, when I lifted those eight diamonds from the Spider God's temple."
The big man sucked his tongue in disapproval. "I sometimes wonder why I associate with faithless rogues like you."
The small man shrugged. "I was in a hurry. The Spider God was after me."
He raised his hand in a dignified salute. He said gravely, "I am chamberlain of Glipkerio Kistomerces, Overlord of Lankhmar, and here is my wand of authority." He produced a small silver wand tipped with a five-pointed bronze emblem in the form of a starfish.The service the Overlord of Lankhmar wishes Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser to undertake is a seemingly easy one: to escort a shipment of grain by ship as a show of gratitude to the Eight Cities for having fought off Mingol pirates and raiders that were harassing Lankhmar. In addition to the grain, the Overlord is also sending along "twelve large white rats distributed among four silver-barred cages" who, have been trained to "dance to music, to drink from cups, hold tiny spears and swords, even fence." Their trainer, a young woman named Hisvet, is also aboard ship and Fafhrd worries, somewhat uncharacteristically, that she too is part of the Overlord's gift to the leader of the Eight Cities.
The two men nodded slightly, as though to say, "We accept your statement for what it's worth."
The chamberlain faced the big man. He drew a scroll from his toga, unrolled it, scanned it briefly, then looked up. "Are you Fafhrd the northern barbarian and brawler?"
The big man considered that for a bit, then said, "And if I am?"
The chamberlain turned toward the small man. He once more consulted his parchment. "And are you--your pardon, but it's written here--that mongrel and long-suspected burglar, cutpurse, swindler, and assassin, the Gray Mouser?"
The small man fluffed his gray cape and said, "If it's any business of yours--well, he and I might be connected in some way."
As if those vaguest answers settled everything, the chamberlain rolled up his parchment with a snap and tucked it inside his toga. "Then my master wishes to see you. There is a service which you can render him, to your own considerable profit."
It should come as no surprise to anyone that this mission for the Overlord is not as simple as it first appears. Before long, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser find themselves contending with unexpected obstacles, not least being the truth about the rats and their trainer, leading to one of the more unusual adventures they've ever undertaken, which is saying something!
As I mentioned some weeks ago in another context, I'd never read this novel in my younger years. I'm not even sure I was aware of its existence until comparatively recently, when I was warned by others that Leiber's later Lankhmar tales, starting with The Swords of Lankhmar were not as accomplished as his earlier ones. I think that warning was a fair one, if taken in context. This novel is a bit more ponderous than the short stories that won me over to Leiber as a teenager. Some of that is a function of its length: novels are almost always less fast-paced than are short stories. However, some of it is also a function of Leiber's having changed -- or "matured," if you prefer -- as a writer when he wrote this. Though still packed with all the excitement and derring-do one would expect of a swords-and-sorcery story by one of its acknowledged masters, it's also strangely introspective at time, a reflection not only of its writer's age but also of his characters', for, unlike many pulp fantasy writers, Leiber does not shy away from showing his protagonists growing older and being affected by that growth.
Regardless, The Swords of Lankhmar is a superb fantasy story well told. Reading through it, I found myself many times thinking, "This is what D&D is supposed to be like" -- lovable rogues, evil wizards, dimension-hopping zookeepers, dark and decadent cities, and rats. Forget Vance and Howard and Tolkien (well, not literally), because Leiber is where Dungeons & Dragons was born. Even if you've already read and enjoyed his stuff, it's worth picking up again. You won't regret it.