Once upon a time in Lankhmar, City of the Black Toga, in the world of Nehwon, two years after the Year of the Feathered Death, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser parted their ways.The precise cause of their parting is never explained with certainty, though it may have involved "the proper spelling of Fafhrd's name" (though Leiber also suggests that "Bored and insecure men will often loose arrows at dust motes.") Thus separated, Mouser
entered the service of one Pulg, a rising racketeer of small religions, a lord of Lankhmar's dark underworld who levied tribute from the priests of all godlets seeking to become gods -- on pain of unpleasant, disturbing, and revolting things happening at future services of the defaulting godlet. If a priest didn't pay Pulg, his miracles were sure to misfire, his congregation and collection fall off sharply, and it was quite possible that a bruised skin and broken bones would be his lot.Meanwhile, Fafhrd
broke his longsword across his knee (cutting himself badly in the act), tore from his garments the few remaining ornaments (dull and worthless scraps of metal) and bits of ratty fur, forswore strong drink and all allied pleasures (he had been on small beer and womanless for some time), and became an acolyte of Bwadres, the sole priest of Issek of the Jug. Fafhrd let his beard grow until it was as long as his shoulder-brushing hair, he became lean and hollow-cheeked and cavern-eyed, and his voice changed from bass to tenor, though not as a result of the distressing mutilation which some whispered he had inflicted upon himself -- these last knew he had cut himself but lied wildly as to where.The short story, having established that the northern barbarian had become a devotee of a petty god and that the wiry thief had become involved in a protection racket that preyed on such devotees, proceeds much as one might expect, with the former boon companions becoming adversaries in a battle to which neither of them is truly dedicated -- certainly not dedicated enough to bring rain permanent harm upon the head of the other, at any rate.
Therein lies the brilliance of "Lean Times in Lankhmar." Although the general outline of the plot is one almost any reader of the Twain's adventures could guess in advance, the twists and turns it takes are delightfully surprising and, as usual, offered up with great wit. The story ranks among the best tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser and, indeed, one of Leiber's best, in my opinion. It's breezily written yet strangely substantial, providing insight into not only the world of Nehwon and its characters but also into human nature, or at least Leiber's own perspective on it. Stories like this make a great change of pace from the often grimness and gloominess of much swords-and-sorcery fiction and, as I get older, I find myself preferring Leiber's prose above that of just about every other writer of fantasy.