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On the world of Nehwon and the land of Simorgya, six days fast sailing south from Rime Isle, two handsome silvery personages conversed intimately yet tensely in a dimly and irregularly lit hall of pillars open overhead to the darkness. Very strange was that illumination—greenish and yellowish by turns, it seemed to come chiefly from grotesquely shaped rugs patching the Stygian floor and lapping the pillars' bases and also from slowly moving globes and sinuosities that floated about at head height and wove amongst the pillars, softly dimming and brightening like lethargic and plague-stricken giant fireflies.
Mordroog said sharply, "Caught you that thrill, sister?—faint and far north away, yet unmistakably ours."
Ississi replied eagerly, "The same, brother, as we felt two days agone—our mystic gold dipped deep in the sea for a space, then out again."
"The same indeed, sister, though this time with a certain ambiguity as to the out—whether that or otherwise gone," Mordroog assented.
"Yet the now-confirmed clue is certain and bears only one interpretation: our chiefest treasures, that were our most main guards, raped away long ages agone—and now at long last we know the culprits, those villainous pirates of Rime Isle!" breathed Ississi.
"Long, long ages agone, before ever Simorgya sank (and the fortunate island kingdom became the dark infernal realm)—and their vanishment the hastener or very agent of that sinking. But now we have the remedy—and who knows when our treasure's back what long-sunken things may rise in spouting wrath to consternate the world? Your attention, sister!" snapped Mordroog.
The abysmal scene darkened, then brightened as he dipped his hand into the pouch at his waist and brought it out again holding something big as a girl's fist. The floating globes and sinuosities moved inward inquisitively, jogging and jostling each other. Their flaring glows rebounded through the murk from a lacy yet massy small gold globe showing between his thin clawed silver fingers—its twelve thick edges like those of a hexahedron embedded in the surface of a sphere and curving conformably to that structure. He proffered it to her. The golden light gave the semblance of life to their hawklike features.
"Sister," he breathed, "it is now your task, and geas laid upon you, to proceed to Rime Isle and regain our treasure, taking vengeance or not as opportunity affords and prudence counsels—whilst I maintain here, unifying the forces and regathering the scattered allies against your return. You will need this last cryptic treasure for your protection and as a hound to scent out its brothers in the world above."
Now for the first time Ississi seemed to hesitate and her eagerness to abate.
"The way is long, brother, and we are weak with waiting," she protested, wailing. "What was once a week's fast sailing will be for me three black moons of torturesome dark treading, press I on ever so hard. We have become the sea's slaves, brother, and carry always the sea's weight. And I have grown to abhor the daylight."
"We have also the sea's strength," he reminded her commandingly, "and though we are weak as ghosts on land, preferring darkness and the deep, we also know the old ways of gaining power and facing even the sun. It is your task, sister. The geas is upon you. Salt is heavy but blood is sweet. Go, go, go!"
Wherewith she snatched the goldy ghost-globe from his grip, plunged it into her pouch, and turning with a sudden flirt made off, the living lamps scattering to make a dark northward route for her.
With the last "Go," a small bubble formed at the corner of Mordroog's thin, snarling, silvery lips, detached itself from them, and slowly grew in size as it mounted from these dark deeps up toward the water's distant surface.
Three months after the events aforenarrated, Fafhrd was at archery practice on the heath north of Salthaven City on Rime Isle's southeastern coast—one more self-imposed, self-devised, and self-taught lesson of many in learning the mechanics of life for one lacking a left hand, lost to Odin during the repulse of the Widder Sea-Mingols from the Isle's western shores. He had firmly affixed a tapering, thin, finger-long iron rod (much like a sword blade's tang) to the midst of his bow and wedged it into the corresponding deep hole in the wooden wrist heading the closefitting leather stall, half the length of his forearm and dotted with holes for ventilation, that covered his newly healed stump—with the result that his left arm terminated in a serviceably if somewhat unadjustably clutched bow.
Here near town the heath was grass mingled with ankle-high heather, here and there dotted with small clumps of gorse, in and out of which the occasional pair of plump lemmings played fearlessly, and man-high gray standing stones. These last had perhaps once been of religious significance to the now atheistical Rime Islers—who were atheists not in the sense that they did not believe in gods (that would have been very difficult for any dweller in the world of Nehwon) but that they did not socialize with any such gods or hearken in any way to their commands, threats, and cajolings. They (the standing stones) stood about like so many mute gray grizzle bears.
Except for a few compact white clouds a-hang over the isle, the late afternoon sky was clear, windless, and surprisingly balmy for this late in autumn, in fact on the very edge of winter and its icy, snow-laden winds.
The girl accompanied Fafhrd in his practicing. The silver-blond thirteen-year-old now trudged about with him collecting arrows—half of them transfixing his target, which was a huge ball. To keep his bow out of the way Fafhrd carried it as if over his shoulder, maimed left arm closely bent upward.
"They ought to have an arrow that would shoot around corners," Gale said apropos of hunting behind a standing stone. "That way you'd get your enemy if he hid behind a house or a tree trunk."
"It's an idea," Fafhrd admitted.
"Maybe if the arrow had a little curve in it—" she speculated.
"No, then it would just tumble," he told her. "The virtue of an arrow lies in its perfect straightness, its—"
"You don't have to tell me that," she interrupted impatiently. "I keep hearing all about that, over and over, from Aunt Afreyt and cousin Cif when they lecture me about the Golden Arrow of Truth and the Golden Circles of Unity and all those." The girl was referring to the closely guarded gold ikons that had been from time immemorial the atheist-holy relics of the Rime Isle fisherfolk.
That made Fafhrd think of the Golden Cube of Square Dealing, forever lost when the Mouser had hurled it to quell the vast whirlpool which had vanquished the Mingol fleet and threatened to sink his own in the great sea battle. Did it lie now in mucky black sea bottom near the Beach of Bleached Bones, or had it indeed vanished entire from Nehwon-world with the errant gods, Odin and Loki?
And that in turn made him wonder and worry a little about the Gray Mouser, who had sailed away a month ago in Seahawk on a trading expedition to No-Ombrulsk with half his thieves and Flotsam's Mingol crew and Fafhrd's own chief lieutenant Skor. The little man (Captain Mouser, now) had planned on getting back to Rime Isle before the winter blizzards.
Gale interrupted his musings. "Did Aunt Afreyt tell you, Captain Fafhrd, about cousin Cif seeing a ghost or something last night in the council hall treasury, which only she has a key to?" The girl was holding up the big target bag clutched against her so that he could pull out the arrows and return them over shoulder to their quiver.
"I don't think so," he temporized. Actually, he hadn't seen Afreyt today, or Cif either for that matter. For the past few nights he hadn't been sleeping at Afreyt's but with his men and the Mouser's at the dormitory they rented from Groniger, Salthaven's harbor master and chief councilman, the better to supervise the mischievous thieves in the Mouser's absence—or at least that was an explanation on which he and Afreyt could safely agree. "What did the ghost look like?"
"It looked very mysterious," Gale told him, her pale blue eyes widening above the bag which hid the lower part of her face. "Sort of silvery and dark, and it vanished when Cif went closer. She called Groniger, who was around, but they couldn't find anything. She told Afreyt it looked like a princess-lady or a big thin fish."
"How could something look like a woman and a fish?" Fafhrd asked with a short laugh, tugging out the last arrow.
"Well, there are mermaids, aren't there?" she retorted triumphantly, letting the bag fall.
"Yes," Fafhrd admitted, "though I don't expect Groniger would agree with us. Say," he went on, his face losing for a bit its faintly drawn, worried look, "put the target bag behind that rock. I've thought of a way to shoot around corners."
"Oh, good!" She rolled the target bag close against the back of one of the ursine, large gray stones and they walked off a couple of hundred yards. Fafhrd turned. The air was very still. A distant small cloud hid the low sun, though the sky was otherwise very blue and bright. He swiftly drew an arrow and laid it against the short wooden thumb he'd affixed to the bow near its center just above its tang. He took a couple of shuffling steps while his frowning eyes measured the distance between him and the rock. Then he leaned suddenly back and discharged the arrow high into the air. It went up, up, then came swiftly down—close behind the rock, it looked.
"That's not around a corner," Gale protested. "Anybody can do that. I meant sideways."
"You didn't say so," he told her. "Corners can be up or down or sideways right or left. What's the difference?"
"Up-corners you can drop things around."
"Yes, indeed you can!" he agreed and in a sudden frenzy of exercise that left him breathing hard sent the rest of the arrows winging successively after the first. All of them seemed to land close behind the standing stone—all except the last, which they heard clash faintly against rock—but when they'd walked up to where they could see, they found that all but the last arrow had missed. The feathered shafts stood upright, their points plunged into the soft earth, in an oddly regular little row that didn't quite reach the target-bag—all but the last, which had gone through an edge of the bag at an angle and hung there, tangled by its three goosefeather vanes.
"See, you missed," Gale said, "all but the one that glanced off the rock."
"Yes. Well, that's enough shooting for me," he decided, and while she pulled up the arrows and carefully teased loose the last, he loosened the bow's tang from its wood socket, using the back of his knife blade as a pry, then unstrung the bow and hung it across his back by its loose string around his chest, then fitted a wrought-iron hook into the wrist-socket, wedging it tight by driving the head of the hook against the stone. He winced as he did that last, for his stump was still tender and the dozen last shots he'd made had tried it.
As they walked toward the low, mostly red-roofed homes of Salthaven, the setting sun on their backs, Fafhrd studied the gray standing stones and asked Gale, "What do you know about the old gods Rime Isle had?—before the Rime men got atheism."
"They were a pretty wild, lawless lot, Aunt Afreyt says—sort of like Captain Mouser's men before they became soldiers, or your berserks before you tamed them down." She went on with growing enthusiasm, "They certainly didn't believe in any Golden Arrow of Truth, or Golden Ruler of Prudence, or Little Gold Cup of Measured Hospitality—mighty liars, whores, murderers, and pirates, I guess, all of them."
Fafhrd nodded. "Maybe Cif's ghost was one of them," he said. A tall, slender woman came toward them from a violet-toned house. When Afreyt neared them she called to Gale, "So that's where you were. Your mother was wondering." She looked at Fafhrd. "How did the archery go?"
"Captain Fafhrd hit the target almost every time," Gale answered for him. "He even hit it shooting around corners! And I didn't help him a bit fitting his bow or anything."
"I told Fafhrd about Cif's ghost," Gale went on. "He thought it might be one of the old Rime goddesses—Rin the Moon-runner, one of those. Or the witch queen Skeldir."
Afreyt's narrow blond eyebrows arched. "You go along now, your mother wants you."
"Can I keep the target for you?" the girl asked Fafhrd.
He nodded, lifted his left elbow, and the big ball dropped down. Gale rolled it off ahead of her. The target-bag was smoky red with dye from the snowberry root, and the last rays of the sun setting behind them gave it an angry glare. Afreyt and Fafhrd each had the thought that Gale was rolling away the sun.
When she was gone he turned to Afreyt, asking, "What's this nonsense about Cif meeting a ghost?"
"You're getting skeptical as an Isler," she told him unsmiling. "Is something that robs a councilman of his wits and half his strength nonsense?"
"The ghost did that?" he asked as they began to walk slowly toward town.
She nodded. "When Gwaan pushed into the dark treasury past Cif, he was clutched and struck senseless for an hour's space—and has since not left his bed." Her long lips quirked. "Or else he stumbled in the churning shadows and struck his head 'gainst the wall—there's that possibility too, since he has lost his memory for the event."
"Tell me about it more circumstantially," Fafhrd requested.
"The council session had lasted well after dark, for the waning gibbous moon had just risen," she began. "Cif and I being in attendance as treasurer and scribe, Zwaaken and Gwaan called on Cif for an inventory of the ikons of the virtues—ever since the loss of the Gold Cube of Square Dealing (though in a good cause) they've fretted about them. Cif accordingly unlocked the door to the treasury and then hesitated on the threshold. Moon-light striking in through the small barred window (she told me later) left most of the treasure chamber still in the dark, and there was something unfamiliar about the arrangement of the things she saw that sounded a warning to us. Also, there was a faint noxious marshy scent—"
"What does that window look on?" Fafhrd asked.
"The sea. Gwaan pushed past her impatiently (and most discourteously), and then she swears there was a faint blue smoke like muted lightning and in that trice she seemed to see a silent skinny figure of silver fog embrace Gwaan hungrily. She got the impression, she said, of a weak ghost seeking to draw strength from the living. Gwaan gave a choking cry and pitched to the floor When torches were brought in (at Cif's behest) the chamber was otherwise empty, but the Gold Arrow of Truth had fallen from its shelf and lay beneath the window, the other ikons had been moved slightly from their places, as if they'd been feebly groped, while on the floor were narrow patches, like footprints, of stenchful black bottom muck."
"And that was all?" Fafhrd asked as the pause lengthened. When she'd mentioned the thin silvery fog figure, he'd been reminded of someone or something he'd seen lately, but then in his mind a black curtain fell on that particular recollection-flash.
Afreyt nodded. "All that matters, I guess. Gwaan came to after an hour, but remembered nothing, and they've put him to bed, where he stays. Cif and Groniger have set special watch on all the Rimic gold tonight."
Suddenly Fafhrd felt bored with the whole business of Cif's ghost. His mind didn't want to move in that direction. "Those councilmen of yours, all they ever worry about is gold—they're misers all!" he burst out at Afreyt.
"That's true enough," she agreed with him—which annoyed Fafhrd for some reason. "They still criticize Cif for giving the Cube to the Mouser along with the other moneys in her charge, and talk still of impeaching her and confiscating her farm—and maybe mine."
"Ah, the ingrates! And Groniger's one of the worst—he's already dunning me for last week's rent on the men's dormitory, barely two days overdue."
Afreyt nodded. "He also complains your berserks caused a disturbance last week at the Sea Wrack tavern."
"Oh he does, does he?" Fafhrd commented, quieting down.
"How are the Mouser's men behaving?" she asked.
Excerpted from The Knight and Knave of Swords by Fritz Leiber. Copyright © 1998 Estate of Fritz Leiber. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted September 26, 2011