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In the Witch's Tent
The hag bent over the brazier. Its upward-seeking gray fumes interwove with strands of her downward-dangling, tangled black hair. Its glow showed her face to be as dark, jagged-featured, and dirty as the new-dug root-clump of a blackapple tree. A half century of brazier heat and smoke had cured it as black, crinkly, and hard as Mingol bacon.
Through her splayed nostrils and slack mouth, which showed a few brown teeth like old tree stumps irregularly fencing the gray field of her tongue, she garglingly inhaled and bubblingly expelled the fumes.
Such of them as escaped her greedy lungs tortuously found their way to the tent's saggy roof, resting on seven ribs down-curving from the central pole, and deposited on the ancient rawhide their tiny dole of resin and soot. It is said that such a tent, boiled out after decades or preferably centuries of use, yields a nauseous liquid which gives a man strange and dangerous visions.
Outside the tent's drooping walls radiated the dark, twisty alleys of Illik-Ving, an overgrown and rudely boisterous town, which is the eighth and smallest metropolis of the Land of the Eight Cities.
While overhead there shivered in the chill wind the strange stars of the World of Nehwon, which is so like and unlike our own world.
Inside the tent, two barbarian-clad men watched the crouching witch across the brazier. The big man, who had red-blond hair, stared somber-eyed and intently. The little man, who was dressed all in gray, drooped his eyelids, stifled a yawn, and wrinkled his nose.
"I don't know which stinks worse, she or the brazier," he murmured. "Or maybe it's the whole tent, or this alley muck we must sit in. Or perchance her familiar is a skunk. Look, Fafhrd, if we must consult a sorcerous personage, we should have sought out Sheelba or Ningauble before ever we sailed north from Lankhmar across the Inner Sea."
"They weren't available," the big man answered in a clipped whisper. "Shh, Gray Mouser, I think she's gone into trance."
"Asleep, you mean," the little man retorted irreverently.
The hag's gargling breath began to sound more like a death rattle. Her eyelids fluttered, showing two white lines. Wind stirred the tent's dark wall—or it might be unseen presences fumbling and fingering.
The little man was unimpressed. He said, "I don't see why we have to consult anyone. It isn't as if we were going outside Nehwon altogether, as we did in our last adventure. We've got the papers—the scrap of ramskin parchment, I mean—and we know where we're going. Or at least you say you do."
"Shh!" the big man commanded, then added hoarsely, "Before embarking on any great enterprise, it's customary to consult a warlock or witch."
The little man, now whispering likewise, countered with, "Then why couldn't we have consulted a civilized one?—any member in good standing of the Lankhmar Sorcerers Guild. He'd at least have had a comely naked girl or two around, to rest your eyes on when they began to water from scanning his crabbed hieroglyphs and horoscopes."
"A good earthy witch is more honest than some city rogue tricked out in black cone-hat and robe of stars," the big man argued. "Besides, this one is nearer our icy goal and its influences. You and your townsman's lust for luxuries! You'd turn a wizard's workroom into a brothel."
"Why not?" the little man wanted to know. "Both species of glamour at once!" Then, jerking his thumb at the hag, "Earthy, you said? Dungy describes her better."
"Shh, Mouser, you'll break her trance."
"Trance?" The little man reinspected the hag. Her mouth had shut and she was breathing wheezingly through her beaky nose alone, the fume-sooty tip of which sought to meet her jutting chin. There was a faint high wailing, as of distant wolves, or nearby ghosts, or perhaps just an odd overtone of the hag's wheezes.
The little man sneered his upper lip and shook his head.
His hands shook a little too, but he hid that. "No, she's only stoned out of her skull, I'd say," he commented judiciously. "You shouldn't have given her so much poppy gum."
"But that's the entire intent of trance," the big man protested. "To lash, stone, and otherwise drive the spirit out of the skull and whip it up mystic mountains, so that from their peaks it can spy out the lands of past and future, and mayhaps other-world."
"I wish the mountains ahead of us were merely mystic," the little man muttered. "Look, Fafhrd, I'm willing to squat here all night—at any rate for fifty more stinking breaths or two hundred bored heartbeats—to pleasure your whim. But has it occurred to you that we're in danger in this tent? And I don't mean solely from spirits. There are other rogues than ourselves in Illik-Ving, some perhaps on the same quest as ours, who'd dearly love to scupper us. And here in this blind leather hut we're deer on a skyline—or sitting ducks."
Just then the wind came back with its fumblings and fingerings, and in addition a scrabbling that might be that of wind-swayed branch tips or of dead men's long fingernails a-scratch. There were faint growlings and wailings too, and with them stealthy footfalls. Both men thought of the Mouser's last warning. Fafhrd and he looked toward the tent's night-slitted skin door and loosened their swords in their scabbards.
At that instant the hag's noisy breathing stopped and with it all other sound. Her eyes opened, showing only whites—milky ovals infinitely eerie in the dark root-tangle of her sharp features and stringy hair. The gray tip of her tongue traveled like a large maggot around her lips.
The Mouser made to comment, but the out-thrust palm-side of Fafhrd's spread-fingered hand was more compelling than any shh.
In a voice low but remarkably clear, almost a girl's voice, the hag intoned:
"For reasons sorcerous and dim
You travel toward the world's frost rim...."
"Dim" is the key word there, the Mouser thought. Typical witchy say-nothing. She clearly knows naught about us except that we're headed north, which she could get from any gossipy mouth.
"You north, north, north, and north must go
Through dagger-ice and powder-snow...."
More of the same, was the Mouser's inward comment. But must she rub it in, even the snow? Brr!
"And many a rival, envy-eyed,
Will dog your steps until you've died...."
Aha, the inevitable fright-thrust, without which no fortune-tale is complete!
"But after peril's cleansing fire
You'll meet at last your hearts' desire...."
And now pat the happy ending! Gods, but the stupidest palm-reading prostitute of Ilthmar could—
"And then you'll find—"
Something silvery gray flashed across the Mouser's eyes, so close its form was blurred. Without a thought he ducked back and drew Scalpel.
The razor-sharp spear-blade, driven through the tent's side as if it were paper, stopped inches from Fafhrd's head and was dragged back.
A javelin hurtled out of the hide wall. This the Mouser struck aside with his sword.
Now a storm of cries rose outside. The burden of some was, "Death to the strangers!" Of others, "Come out, dogs, and be killed!"
The Mouser faced the skin door, his gaze darting.
Fafhrd, almost as quick to react as the Mouser, hit on a somewhat irregular solution to their knotty tactical problem: that of men besieged in a fortress whose walls neither protect them nor permit outward viewing. At first step, he leaped to the tent's central pole and with a great heave drew it from the earth.
The witch, likewise reacting with good solid sense, threw herself flat on the dirt.
"We decamp!" Fafhrd cried. "Mouser, guard our front and guide me!"
And with that he charged toward the door, carrying the whole tent with him. There was a rapid series of little explosions as the somewhat brittle old thongs that tied its rawhide sides to its pegs snapped. The brazier tumbled over, scattering coals. The hag was overpassed. The Mouser, running ahead of Fafhrd, threw wide the door-slit. He had to use Scalpel at once, to parry a sword thrust out of the dark, but with his other hand he kept the door spread.
The opposing swordsman was bowled over, perhaps a bit startled at being attacked by the tent. The Mouser trod on him. He thought he heard ribs snap as Fafhrd did the same, which seemed a nice if brutal touch. Then he was crying out, "Veer left now, Fafhrd! Now to the right a little! There's an alley coming up on our left. Be ready to turn sharp into it when I give the word. Now!" And grasping the door's hide edges, the Mouser helped swing the tent as Fafhrd pivoted.
From behind came cries of rage and wonder, also a screeching that sounded like the hag, enraged at the theft of her home.
The alley was so narrow that the tent's sides dragged against buildings and fences. At the first sign of a soft spot in the dirt underfoot, Fafhrd drove the tent-pole into it, and they both dashed out of the tent, leaving it blocking the alley.
The cries behind them grew suddenly louder as their pursuers turned into the alley, but Fafhrd and the Mouser did not run off over-swiftly. It seemed certain their attackers would spend considerable time scouting and assaulting the empty tent.
They loped together through the outskirts of the sleeping city toward their own well-hidden camp outside it. Their nostrils sucked in the chill, bracing air funneling down from the best pass through the Trollstep Mountains, a craggy chain which walled off the Land of the Eight Cities from the vast plateau of the Cold Waste to the north.
Fafhrd remarked, "It's unfortunate the old lady was interrupted just when she was about to tell us something important."
The Mouser snorted. "She'd already sung her song, the sum of which was zero."
"I wonder who those rude fellows were and what were their motives!" Fafhrd asked. "I thought I recognized the voice of that ale-swiller Gnarfi, who has an aversion to bear-meat."
"Scoundrels behaving as stupidly as we were," the Mouser answered. "Motives?—as soon impute 'em to sheep! Ten dolts following an idiot leader."
"Still, it appears that someone doesn't like us," Fafhrd opined.
"Was that ever news!" the Gray Mouser retorted.
Early one evening, weeks later, the sky's gray cloud-armor blew away south, smashed and dissolving as if by blows of an acid-dipped mace. The same mighty northeast wind contemptuously puffed down the hitherto impregnable cloud wall to the east, revealing a grimly majestic mountain range running north to south and springing abruptly from the plateau, two leagues high, of the Cold Waste—like a dragon fifty leagues long heaving up its spike-crested spine from icy entombment.
Fafhrd, no stranger to the Cold Waste, born at the foot of these same mountains and childhood climber of their lower slopes, named them off to the Gray Mouser as the two men stood together on the crunchy hoarfrosted eastern rim of the hollow that held their camp. The sun, set for the camp, still shone from behind their backs onto the western faces of the major peaks as he named them—but it shone not with any romanticizing rosy glow, but rather with a clear, cold, detail-pinning light fitting the peaks' dire aloofness.
"Travel your eye to the first great northerly upthrust," he told the Mouser, "that phalanx of heaven-menacing ice-spears shafted with dark rock and gleaming green—that's the Ripsaw. Then, dwarfing them, a single ivory-icy tooth, unscalable by any sane appraisal—the Tusk, he's called. Another unscalable then, still higher and with south wall a sheer precipice shooting up a league and curving outward toward the needletop: he is White Fang, where my father died—the canine of the Mountains of the Giants.
"Now begin again with the first snow dome at the south of the chain," continued the tall fur-cloaked man, copper-bearded and copper-maned, his head otherwise bare to the frigid air, which was as quiet at ground level as sea-deep beneath storm. "The Hint, she's named, or the Come On. Little enough she looks, yet men have frozen nighting on her slopes and been whirled to death by her whimsical queenly avalanches. Then a far vaster snow dome, true queen to the Hint's princess, a hemisphere of purest white, grand enough to roof the council hall of all the gods that ever were or will be—she is Gran Hanack, whom my father was first of men to mount and master. Our town of tents was pitched there near her base. No mark of it now, I'll guess, not even a midden.
"After Gran Hanack and nearest to us of them all, a huge flat-topped pillar, a pedestal for the sky almost, looking to be of green-shot snow but in truth all snow-pale granite scoured by the storms: Obelisk Polaris.
"Lastly," Fafhrd continued, sinking his voice and gripping his smaller comrade's shoulder, "let your gaze travel up the snow-tressed, dark-rocked, snowcapped peak between the Obelisk and White Fang, her glittering skirt somewhat masked by the former, but taller than they as they are taller than the Waste. Even now she hides behind her the mounting moon. She is Stardock, our quest's goal."
"A pretty enough, tall, slender wart on this frostbit patch of Nehwon's face," the Gray Mouser conceded, writhing his shoulder from Fafhrd's grip. "And now at last tell me, friend, why you never climbed this Stardock in your youth and seized the treasure there, but must wait until we get a clue to it in a dusty, hot, scorpion-patrolled desert tower a quarter world away—and waste half a year getting here."
Fafhrd's voice grew a shade unsure as he answered, "My father never climbed her; how should I? Also, there were no legends of a treasure on Stardock's top in my father's clan ... though there was a storm of other legends about Stardock, each forbidding her ascent. They called my father the Legend Breaker and shrugged wisely when he died on White Fang.... Truly, my memory's not so good for those days, Mouser—I got many a mind-shattering knock on my head before I learned to deal all knocks first ... and then I was hardly a boy when the clan left the Cold Waste—though the rough hard walls of Obelisk Polaris had been my upended playground...."
The Mouser nodded doubtfully. In the stillness they heard their tethered ponies munching the ice-crisped grass of the hollow, then a faint unangry growl from Hrissa the ice-cat, curled between the tiny fire and the piled baggage—likely one of the ponies had come cropping too close. On the great icy plain around them, nothing moved—or almost nothing.
The Mouser dipped gray lambskin-gloved fingers into the bottom of his pouch and from the pocket there withdrew a tiny oblong of parchment and read from it, more by memory than sight:
"Who mounts white Stardock, the Moon Tree,
"Past worm and gnome and unseen bars,
"Will win the key to luxury:
"The Heart of Light, a pouch of stars."
Fafhrd said dreamily, "They say the gods once dwelt and had their smithies on Stardock and from thence, amid jetting fire and showering sparks, launched all the stars; hence her name. They say diamonds, rubies, smaragds—all great gems—are the tiny pilot models the gods made of the stars ... and then threw carelessly away across the world when their great work was done."
"You never told me that before," the Mouser said, looking at him sharply.
Fafhrd blinked his eyes and frowned puzzledly. "I am beginning to remember childhood things."
The Mouser smiled thinly before returning the parchment to its deep pocket. "The guess that a pouch of stars might be a bag of gems," he listed, "the story that Nehwon's biggest diamond is called the Heart of Light, a few words on a ramskin scrap in the topmost room of a desert tower locked and sealed for centuries—small hints, those, to draw two men across this murdering, monotonous Cold Waste. Tell me, Old Horse, were you just homesick for the miserable white meadows of your birth to pretend to believe 'em?"
"Those small hints," Fafhrd said, gazing now toward White Fang, "drew other men north across Nehwon. There must have been other ramskin scraps, though why they should be discovered at the same time, I cannot guess."
Excerpted from Swords Against Wizardry by Fritz Leiber. Copyright © 1968 Fritz Leiber. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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